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The Nation

Obesity Is Increasing in the Military

November 11, 2001|From Reuters

WASHINGTON — The U.S. military is increasingly full of overweight men--but not women--who may risk injury in training and on the battlefield, an obesity expert said Friday.

Despite the rigors of basic training and regular field exercises, 54% of military personnel are overweight and 6.2% are obese, Dr. Richard Atkinson, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Wisconsin, told a meeting of the American Obesity Assn.

"Does obesity affect military performance? The answer is yes, it does, to some extent," Atkinson, who is president of the association, said in a telephone interview.

"Obese soldiers have higher risk of heat injury, and there are some other studies looking at musculoskeletal injuries in soldiers going through field-training exercises. They found a high injury rate in people who are too thin and in people who are too obese."

Although in the population at large more women are overweight than men, the reverse is true in the military, Atkinson said. He cited a study that shows 58.6% of men and 26.1% of women in the military are overweight.

"This shows the armed forces are not immune from the obesity epidemic sweeping this country," Atkinson said.

"It's time we recognize obesity as a chronic disease and dedicate federal resources into research and effective treatment programs."

Atkinson is chairing a committee at the National Academy of Sciences that was commissioned by the Department of Defense to look at the issue.

"The military is very aware of the problem," he said.

Atkinson said the Marines had the fewest overweight members and the Navy had the most. "I guess that's because on a ship the emphasis is not on moving around a lot," Atkinson said.

The repercussions could be broader than would be obvious at first.

A study last week in the American Journal of Health Promotion found members of the Air Force would look to smoking as a way to keep the pounds off. Close-to-overweight smokers who were enrolled in a program to help them quit were four times as likely as others in the program to say they might take up the habit again to lose a few pounds.

Obesity is measured using body mass index, a calculation of height versus weight. Someone with a BMI of 25 or over is considered overweight and people with BMIs of 30 or more are considered obese.

Atkinson said 61% of the general U.S. population is overweight and just over a quarter are obese.

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