What type of fighting force would you prefer heading to the front lines – one that’s lean and lightning fast or one that’s sluggish and slow on the draw? As the obesity epidemic continues to spill over into various subcultures in America, two separate organizations are taking steps to ensure our military is much more the former than the latter.
Mission: Readiness, the D.C.-based group made up of retired generals and admirals, is working at the root of the problem by promoting better nutrition and overall health for young Americans. The NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) is covering the post-enlistment end of the spectrum. Their Tactical Strength and Conditioning (TSAC) program is helping to redefine the fitness ethos of our armed forces by creating programs that churn out athlete/soldiers that are better prepared for the rigors of modern warfare.
While we fight the war on terrorism on distant battlefields, another conflict – the one against obesity-related health problems – has continued to escalate at home.
According to the latest estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about a third of U.S. adults are obese. But what’s more alarming is that 17 percent of children aged 2-19 years are in the same foundering boat. This doesn’t bode well for the future of military recruitment, since a basic level of conditioning is required to enlist.
“Recruiting is always a challenge,” says Eileen Lainez, spokeswoman for the Department of Defense. “Entrance standards are stringent; only 25 percent of the American youth population qualifies for enlistment in the military, with 35 percent of the 75 percent unqualified due to medical – mostly obesity-related [reasons].”
Lainez adds that each branch of the armed forces is currently meeting or exceeding recruiting goals, but Mission: Readiness is anticipating challenges down the road due to our children’s expanding waistlines.
“While we have had, and continue to have, recruiting success, I do not take these recent successes for granted, nor do I assume the current favorable recruiting environment will continue,” says Clifford Stanley, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
With that in mind, Mission: Readiness is throwing its energies and resources into, among other initiatives, the fulfillment of the recently-passed Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2011, which is geared toward providing school children with greater access to healthier foods.
In today’s urban skirmishes, soldiers are increasingly called upon to kick down doors, jump through windows, ascend stairs and subdue combatants by hand. This type of dynamic combat calls for more athleticism than has been historically required by armed forces fitness standards. To better prepare those on the front lines, as well as to improve the general conditioning of support personnel and the armed forces as a whole, the military has begun to lean on the expertise of those at the NSCA. The TSAC branch of the NSCA was created to help military and law enforcement personnel minimize injury while maximizing real-world strength, speed, power and agility. And that means more than long runs and pull-ups.
“We’ve been working with people in the military to create physical fitness tests that are more accurate gauges of their combat readiness,” says Jason Dudley, MS, CSCS, the TSAC program coordinator. “The biggest thing operators are looking for is to increase their ability to move on the battlefield. The PT tests have to evolve because they’re not relatable to what they do in combat.”
While Dudley stops short of saying that their involvement would lead to even tougher recruiting standards for the military, he agrees that raising the bar on fitness standards is a good thing.
“Certainly, for the people who are fit for the job, it’ll be easier,” he says. “But it’s not just making it more difficult. It’s changing the nature of the tests and making them more applicable.”
Training in today’s military has begun to stray from doing X amount of push-ups or sit-ups in X amount of seconds. Instructors at Army Combatives School, for example, spend their mornings heaving 100-pound medicine balls filled with buckshot, flipping tractor tires and dragging weighted sleds – things designed to mimic scenarios they might encounter on their next deployment that happen to lead to leaner, more athletic physiques.
Today’s military is the tip of the spear in the defense of our freedoms. But as obesity levels continue to increase within our borders, we may find it tougher to fight our wars beyond them. Diplomacy, intelligence and superior firepower make for a pretty strong defense, but developing a fitter base of recruits and cultivating a more athletic brand of warrior is good insurance.