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Study: 1 In 3 Young Kansans 'Too Fat To Enlist'

Virginia Guard Public Affairs, flickr Creative Commons

According to a report issued Wednesday by a group of retired military leaders, the nation’s obesity epidemic is causing significant recruiting problems for the Department of Defense. One in three young Americans is too overweight to enlist.

In 2012, the Army dismissed 3000 soldiers for being overweight or out of shape. In the same year, the Navy and the Air Force each dismissed 1300. The non-profit, non-partisan group Mission: Readiness is promoting healthy school lunches nationwide as a way to combat those statistics.

Retired Brigadier General John Schmader, a member of Mission: Readiness, lives in Leavenworth, Kansas.

"When I came in the Army in the 1970’s, every ball field, whether it was baseball, football or a basketball court was occupied all the time by people playing,” Schmader says.

Credit Mission Readiness

He says the obesity problem stems from two things: unhealthy diets including fast food and soda, and a lack of physical activity.

“Now, you go to some installations, and the athletic fields have grown over with grass because there’s no one out there doing the sports,” Schmader says.

Schmader says that Mission: Readiness is about more than just the military.

“We’re looking out maybe 15 years and you take a population of people today and you say, 'Okay, if they go along the same line they’re on now, what will they look like in 15 years?'" Schmader says. "Will they be eligible to enter the military? Will they be eligible to be a policeman, a fireman, do all of those other things that require a physically fit person?”

Obesity is the leading cause of military ineligibility among people ages 17 to 24. An 18-year-old man who is 6 foot 2 inches tall can weigh no more than 211 pounds if he wants to join the army. A female the same age and a foot shorter, can’t be heavier than 140 pounds. 71 percent of young Kansans are not eligible for military services because of lack of adequate education, a criminal history, drug use and obesity.

If their body mass index is too high, they cannot get into the military. That's the bottom line.

"29 percent [of that number] has to do with obesity," Schmader explains.

He says obesity is related to body mass index — a measure of body fat based on height and weight. Anyone with a body mass index of 30 or higher is considered obese. The amount of body fat a person has is also taken into consideration. Those numbers are determined based on gender, age, weight and height.

“If their body mass index is too high, they cannot get into the military. That’s the bottom line," Schmader says. "And then once they’re in the military, they’re subject to frequent body mass checks, and if they get what we call 'overweight', they go into a weight reduction program, a dietary program, more physical fitness, or if they cannot get their weight under control, they can be eliminated from the military.”

Credit Mission Readiness

The military has seen a 61 percent rise in obesity since 2002 among its active-duty forces, according to the report by Mission: Readiness. Schmader says that right now the armed forces are spending $1.5 billion on obesity. That includes training incoming recruits and discharging those who are too heavy to do their jobs safely.  

“Statistics show us, studies show us that people who are not physically fit and overweight have a higher incidence of non-combat related injuries," he says. "And those cost us money. And they could jeopardize the mission or they could jeopardize the young person's life itself.”

For that reason, Schmader says members of Mission: Readiness have been going to schools around the state promoting healthier lifestyles. He says students eat about 45 percent of their calories through a school meal program.

Studies show us that people who are not physically fit and overweight have a higher incidence of non-combat related injuries.

“So if you start introducing kids at a young age to these healthier food styles and all of the sudden it tastes pretty good, they might go home and say, ‘Hey Mom, can I have some of that broccoli and an apple like they had for lunch at school today?'” Schmader says.

He says nearly 99 percent of Kansas schools have adopted healthier meals under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, championed by Michelle Obama. The act requires more fruit, vegetables and whole grains in school meals, along with less sodium, sugar, and fat.

“And so now all of the sudden you’re educating the population and the element that we’re trying to influence adopts it and they go home and start educating their parents and pretty soon," Schmader says. "We’re looking towards a lifestyle change that positively impacts our entire society.”

He says Mission: Readiness is focused not only on the future of the Department of Defense, but of the nation.