Last week was an example of how two different news stories , while not directly connected, can nevertheless invite, even scream for, side by side comparison.

The first was this 26 April podcast from Freakonomics entitled “There’s A War On Sugar. Is It Justified?”.  The podcast surveys the evolution of schools of thought on the increase in obesity rates, Type 2 Diabetes, and other related health issues. The podcast looks at how sugars the criteria used by scientists to determine if a substance is addictive, and also considers arguments how sugar came to be found in almost all commercial foods.  It then looks at the question of whether sugar should, or even should, be regulated in the way that, say, alcohol and tobacco are regulated.

As one of the experts on the podcast noted, regulation of sugar is problematic for many reasons:

It’s a difficult question, because sugar is safe when it’s used in moderation. But the problem is that most people are unaware of how much sugar they’re consuming. Also, if the data suggests that the sugar is producing addictive-like changes in the brain, then we’re talking about something very different. Because if you’re no longer be able to have full volitional control over your decision to eat or not eat the sugar, then that becomes a different type of discussion.

CAF personnel involved in emergency flood operations: one reason why soldiers need to be fit.

Next, consider this podcast of an interview with US Army Lieutenant General (retd) Mark Hertling on the connection between physical fitness and national security.

General Hertling has a degree in physiology, was a physical education instructor at West Point, and went on to be commander of the US Army in Europe before being appointed to a presidential panel on health and fitness.

In the podcast, he notes that today only 23% of US youth meet the physical standards necessary for service in the US military.  The remaining 77% are ineligible for various physical defects including lack of fitness and obesity.   Compare that rate of eligibility to the situation in 1917, as the US Army was gearing up for World War One, when 75% of US youth were physically fit to serve.

For leaders such as Gen. Hertling, these numbers are important because they determine the size of the recruit pool that allows militaries to maintain itself at a good state of operational readiness.  As a former commander of mine said, readiness is like the Alamo – the more men you have on the walls, the better off you are.

Gen. Hertling first noticed declines in the fitness of recruits around the year 2009, though he notes that a health crisis had been underway since the 1990s because of societal issues, among which he includes increase in divorce rates, changes in eating habits, amount and type of food served by the fast foot fast food industry, increase in obesity levels.  At the same time, changes and cuts to the public education system meant that mandatory PE classes were being cut by many states, at the same time  as leisure activities for children and young people became more sedentary.

The Army’s basic training system thus had only ten weeks of physical training to compensate for this health crisis, , without physically damaging the recruits or driving them out of the military.  While the military made changes to its training, making time for more sleep and better nutrition, Hertling notes that society as a while has to make these changes by improving diet, giving opportunities for kids in K-12 to have physical activity in schools, reinforce this in families. As a footnote, I would love to hear what the General would say about Republican plans to roll back school nutrition standards set during the Obama era.

You might think that in a more technological era, physical fitness would be less important than cognitive abilities and education, but as Gen. Hertling notes, mental stamina is connected to physical stamina.  The nature of recent warfare, he said, is more continuous and more psychologically demanding than in previous conflicts, where soldiers might have periods out of the line and combat had a start/stop quality.  In contemporary warfare, the threat environment can be near constant.  In such conditions, fear is a stressor that can wear the body down as much as physical exertion, and thus physical fitness will be even more central to resilience and battlefield victory.

From a Canadian perspective, there is some evidence that our children and young people are less obese and more fit than are young Americans.  Even so, the Canadian Armed Forces has faced criticism in recent years for relaxing its entry fitness standards for recruits.  The base where I currently work is a dedicated training base, and recently I heard the commander speak about how many of the personnel here for months long training courses resent the cost of their compulsory meal plans.  His reason for not allowing an opt-out option was the high likelihood that trainees would then make poor food choices to save money, thus impairing their ability to train to course standards.

Clearly health, nutrition and fitness are and should be high importance concerns for all senior military leaders.

0 Responses

  1. While I agree that physical fitness is a crucial part of modern military operations, I believe that by insisting on uniformly high standards of physical fitness and military competence, armed forces are cutting themselves off from a huge recruiting pool. In contemporary operations, there are crucial roles which don't demand physical fitness in the same way that combat and combat support arms do.

    Thank you for a very interesting and well-researched post, Mike.

    If (heaven forbid) it were up to me, I would advocate a 'two-tier' system. Combat and battlefield roles would demand the same high standards of physical fitness they have always done, for the very reasons you outline in your post. But other roles, perhaps those in the cyber, intelligence and non-combatant services, would relax (but not dispense with) physical fitness standards.

    It makes sense – if the manpower pool is becoming less fit, we need to use the few who DO meet the standards more intelligently. How much money are armed forces spending on training chefs and admin clerks to the same standard as infantrymen? Of course, in an ideal world we WOULD do that, but we just CAN'T with the fitness among the general population the way it is.

    I am forcefully reminded of this point when my chaps and ladies (who are more in the support role) are frequently taken away to take part in battle camps, learning how to conduct company attacks – to the point where their vital day-to-day job suffers. Take them away to learn FOB defence, or QRF duties, yes – but don't waste time teaching them skills that need to be put into the infantry.

    The professionalism and skill of infantry soldiers – which includes their fitness – is the one area we can maintain an edge over our contemporary adversaries. Let's focus our stretched training resources to keep them to the standard first.

    Contraversial, I know – I wonder what your thoughts are Mike.