America’s troops: overweight and overtired

Elizabeth Howe
October 04, 2018 - 10:21 am

Photo courtesy of Lance Cpl. Sabrina Candiaflores

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Not sleeping enough and overeating? You’re in great company in the United States military. After surveying 17,000 active duty service members, RAND found that today's military might be too sleepy and fat to be truly combat ready.

Roughly 55 percent of surveyed troops say they get less sleep than needed, and roughly one-third say poor sleep results in a moderate to severe lack of energy. Five to ten percent (depending on branch) report frequently using sleep aids, and 7.2 percent drink energy drinks daily.

These are dangerous patterns for any human but they're significantly more so when it comes to the military. Lack of sleep affects combat readiness — it can have, and has had, serious consequences. The investigation into last year's navy vessel crashes revealed that fatigue and sleep deprivation were factors in the crew's performance. Which is understandable considering they were working 100-hour work weeks. Policy changes — such as hourly work week limits closer to that of normal humans — need to be made to encourage healthier sleeping patterns. Otherwise, operational safety and effectiveness will be negatively impacted. 

Today's military is also fat — and they're not exercising enough. The 2015 HRBS found that 51 percent of service members are overweight and an additional 14.7 percent are obese. These numbers don't account for weight contributed by muscle mass. Even considering this, these rates are high — and it might have to do with how little troops are exercising. While 31.3 percent complete more than five hours of moderate physical activity a week, 47.9 percent are closer to 2 1/2 hours a week. 

This isn't new news, and it reflects national obesity trends. But it has been an ongoing problem and negatively affecting military readiness for years. Recruiting efforts have become increasingly difficult as more and more Americans cross the threshold into too fat to enlist. And those already in the military endanger themselves, their fellow service member and national security when they fail to meet fitness standards. The Army's new PT test is part of the effort to fix this fitness crisis, but the report shows the military has some serious work to do.  

The report includes a myriad of other insights into today’s military. The substance use report showed that 35.3 percent of service personnel reported alcohol consumption that fits the description of “Hazardous or disordered drinking.” The Marine Corps leads this statistic with roughly 48 percent. Eighty-seven percent of military personnel occasionally text or email while driving; those in lower pay grades reported doing so more often. Military personnel uses complementary and alternative medicine practices such as chiropractic and meditation at a higher rate than the U.S. adult population. Twenty percent of active-duty service members are at a high risk for HIV and roughly 18 percent of Marine Corps females identify as bisexual.

While the report provided policy suggestions for each topic, it’s now up to each individual branch to identify the true problem areas and make decisions and changes to improve the overall health and well-being of current service members.

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