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Fit to fight? Pentagon mulls changes in fitness standards as obesity rates rise

U.S. soldiers exercise training.
Richard Schoenberg | Corbis | Getty Images

Worried the U.S. military may be losing its battle on bulging waistlines, the Pentagon is reviewing its current physical fitness and body fat program.

"The current instruction is more than 10 years old," said a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense. "This is essentially overdue."

The Pentagon's last directive on body fat and physical fitness standards was released in 2004. The Military Times was the first to report that the DoD would publish its new findings later this year.

Since 2002, there's been a sharp jump in the incidence of obesity among active duty forces, according to data published last year in a report from Mission: Readiness, a non-profit group of more than 500 retired generals and other senior military leaders.

"Currently, 12 percent of active duty service members are obese based on height and weight — an increase of 61 percent since 2002 — which is resulting in serious problems with injuries and dismissals," the Mission: Readiness report stated. "Given that one-third of American children and teens are now obese or overweight… and nearly one-third of Americans ages 17 to 24 are too overweight to serve in our military, the obesity rate among active duty service members could get even worse in the future if we do not act."

The 2004 Pentagon policy governing fitness and body fat standards for the U.S. Armed Forces listed active-duty men maintain body fat not exceeding 26 percent and women 36 percent. Despite the widespread availability of new body mass index technology, some of the U.S. services currently rely on an old-fashioned tape test for determining body-fat composition.

"Service members whose duties require muscular and cardio-respiratory endurance may be hampered in performing their duties when body fat exceeds 26 percent in males and 36 percent in females," the DoD's 2004 policy on fitness and body fat stated. "The military services shall implement body composition programs that enhance general health, physical fitness and military appearance."

There's also some debate whether the use of BMI data is even helpful given the varied sizes of people who also can do well in other physical fitness testing.

"When you have groups of individuals who are fit and highly trained, then BMI is absolutely useless," Dr. Dympna Gallagher, the director of the body composition unit at the New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center, told Military Times.

The new rules will be standards for the armed forces but the different branches are allowed some wiggle room in adjusting them.

"Basically what DoD does is say here's the minimum standard and now the services can choose if that's going to be appropriate for them or if they'd like to modify it to be more stringent," the DoD spokesman said. "They essentially can't go less stringent than whatever the DoD standard is."

The DoD's 2004 policy also required all service members be evaluated and tested "at least annually," although some services have spot check programs. Additionally, the current military physical standards urge aerobic exercise be done "a minimum of three times weekly" at least for 20 to 30 minutes at a time.