Fat fighters: can tech tackle the global military obesity problem?


The world’s waistlines are getting wider, and even military personnel, traditionally some of the fittest individuals around, aren’t immune to this growing trend, according to research.

“Studies generally have found obesity is rather alarmingly common in the British Armed Forces—stronger amongst enlisted ranks than officers and in the Royal Navy and Army than in the Royal Marines or RAF,” says BBC defence journalist and chairman of the Westminster Strategic Studies Group Pádraig Belton.

The Sunday Times recently published new statistics obtained through a Freedom of Information (FoI) request that revealed 270 British soldiers had been given diet medication to help them manage their weight and a further 20 had undergone liposuction surgery. It also found that between April 2014 and March 2016, around 800 members of the UK Armed Forces were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes associated with being overweight.

“In my limited experience, you get two types of soldier who suffer from fitness issues,” explains a British Army officer who wishes to remain anonymous. “Those who have been in service for many years and are a few years away from retirement, and those who have just arrived from basic training, which is more common now than even a few years ago.”

Fit for purpose?

All armed forces require candidates to fall within weight limits and pass fitness tests to join up, but the nature and regularity of physical training (PT) after the rigours of basic training can vary considerably. So where does it go wrong? Service personnel agree that in many cases, the amount and type of PT carried out depends on the individual, so those less inclined can slip through the net, leading to a loss of fitness and an upwards blip on the scales.

However, driven individuals can thrive in such an environment, as Chief Petty Officer David Francis, who served in the Royal Navy until 2000, explains. “In the navy sport is not compulsory but it attracts keen sportspeople who are self-motivated to exercise, some up to three times a day,” he says. “When you’re at sea you work from 8am to 4pm, then after dinner the rest of your day’s free; there’s not much to do except fitness training.”

And despite a lack of formal PT, regular testing keeps sailors on their toes. “When the ‘beep test’, which sees participants running between two points at increasing speeds, came out for everyone except those exempt due to leg injury, it ensured everyone met a certain standard,” adds Francis. “If they couldn’t pass there was a scheme to change their diet and exercise.”

"PT is hard during basic training and regular during technical training, but a hodgepodge from there."

It’s not just British troops who are left to their own devices to stay fit; members of the US armed forces report a similar pattern.

Sergeant First Class Paul Hixon, who left the US Army in 2004, says that in garrison PT took place from 6am to 8am every weekday but when deployed it depended on what was going on operationally. “We usually did push-ups, sit-ups and some type of cardio,” he says.

“PT is hard during basic training and regular during technical training, but a hodgepodge from there,” a US Air Force officer says. “Most USAF squadrons have a group PT session of some kind at least twice a week, but that’s usually more about unit camaraderie than fitness.”

A former US Navy officer adds: “Once I got out of training, we didn't have any regular official organised PT, although a few of us would just do it three times a week as a group in the mornings and afternoons. On board, I would just run on a treadmill whenever I felt the need, but was running up and down the ladders and diving and snorkelling in my free time when we were in Guam or Saipan, in addition to walking a lot when in port.”

While fitness standards have been lowered across the US armed forces, one branch still prides itself on demanding exceptional levels of toughness from its members: the US Marine Corps. “The US Marine Corps has a personal fitness test every six months,” says a former officer. “To score a perfect 300, a male must perform 100 sit-ups in two minutes, complete a three-mile run in less than 18 minutes and do 20 pull-ups. For many, the goal is to get in under the cut-off time on the run [28 minutes for males aged 17 – 26] to ensure they pass, but this is only twice a year.”

More sit, less fit

Civilian sedentariness is often blamed on too much work and leisure time being spent in front of a screen, so could the increasing role of cyber and IT in the military be to blame? One current US Army officer disagrees.

“The assumption that most military occupational specialities (MOS) today are IT-based is wrong; very few people gets to fly drones, for example,” he says. “You need to be fit regardless of MOS because it  reflects on battlefield performance. IT guys do provide valuable services for us grunts when assigned to our combat outposts (COP); there is no mission without signal intelligence. But everyone’s a rifleman when it comes to COP defence, so POGs [military slang for people other than grunts] need to be in shape too.”

"The US Air Force officer admits that his services nickname of Chair Force may be somewhat warranted.

However, the US Air Force officer admits that his service’s nickname of “Chair Force” may be somewhat warranted. “There are office-like twelve-hour shifts with a high-pace and high-stress mission tempo, despite sitting in a chair,” he says. “My field, intel, generally attracts far more computer nerd types than fitness jocks. And who the hell wants to PT after a twelve-hour shift, unless compelled?” 

Whatever the cause, Belton has evidence that the MoD may be right to worry about the latest statistics. “Heavier soldiers are more prone to becoming injured during operations,” he says. “The Americans found that during the Iraq surge, when they relaxed body fat recruiting standards by 2%, soldiers who were granted a waiver [for weight problems] were 47% more likely to experience musculosketal injuries.”

Tracking tech

Given that many armed forces personnel blame the fact that they are left to their own devices PT-wise, there may be potential for them to benefit from the fitness tracking technology on which many civilians rely to set goals and motivate themselves to work out.

“There’s every indication wearables are being rolled out across navies and militaries to assist in fighting these services’ obesity epidemics,” says Belton. “The US Navy began issuing fitness trackers to sailors to monitor their workouts and diets in September, and the US Marine Corps, in administrative 274/16, allowed members of that service to wear FitBits, Jawbones, Nikes and Garmins in spaces where collateral classified information and controlled unclassified information is processed, stored, or discussed. American Air Force personnel report that they are allowed to wear wearables like FitBits even within sensitive compartmented information facilities.”

However, some of the features that make over-the-counter wearables so attractive to civilians - data storage, GPS location, information on heart rate and sleep patterns for example - could pose a security risk to military operations if hacked, especially at the vulnerable interface with the cloud.

“In the battlespace, some of this information - on a soldier’s pulse rate, how much they have slept, and how far they have walked - could indeed be of tactical use to opponents, and we would, I imagine, see competitor nations spending some time exploiting their fairly well-known security vulnerabilities,” adds Belton.

Francis adds there are policies to reduce the risk. “In the Royal Navy fitness trackers can be worn shore-side but not on active duty for the same reasons sailors can’t carry civilian phones – enemies could use GPS tracking satellites to target the wearer,” he says.

But the USAF officer says common sense can be applied. “Many of my guys are geeks who use fitness trackers,” he says. “Based on security, there are rules about which types can be worn and features they can have at work, but nothing unreasonable or onerous enough to prevent fairly common use.” 

Policy problem

Military obesity is a complex issue with a number of interrelated causes, and while this is also the case in civilian world, there are added complexities. Service-related depression and PTSD affect the health and fitness of a soldier, for example, and after a 4,000 calorie a day diet on active service it is difficult to switch back to a more usual 2,500 to 3,000 calories. There are also societal and policy factors at work.

“The forces, particularly at the level of NCOs and other ranks, do recruit heavily from more disadvantaged sections of the population—where obesity is more common,” explains Belton.

The British Army officer adds: “Because of manning shortfalls the armed forces are more willing to accept those with fitness issues from basic training, plus less inclined to push out those who become unfit as time goes on.”

When we as a society are getting fatter and military organisations have a limited pool from which to recruit, enforced PT and regular fitness testing throughout service, however unpopular, may be the only way enlistees can stay as fighting fit as they were when they passed basic training. But with UK gym memberships at their highest ever level, according to the 2016 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report, perhaps the opportunity for potential recruits to be paid to get fit and stay fit could be repackaged as an incentive, not a penalty.