U.S. Army obesity rates rise due to pandemic
April 4, 2023

According to a new study, almost 10,000 active-duty U.S. Army soldiers became obese during the COVID-19 pandemic, revealing a long-standing issue with the military’s physical readiness.

The findings, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday, also indicated that an additional 27 percent of soldiers who were previously healthy have become overweight since the pandemic started.

The study analyzed medical records from nearly 200,000 active-duty Army soldiers from February 2019 to January 2020, and from September 2020 to June 2021. Nearly 16 percent of those who were previously overweight have become obese during the pandemic, with the percentage of obese soldiers growing from 18 percent to 23 percent.

Experts are concerned that the trend of obesity in the military could affect national security, as being overweight is the most significant individual disqualifier for potential recruits, affecting more than one in 10 candidates. The study also found that the trend was not limited to the Army, with other branches of the military also seeing increases in obesity rates.

Military leaders have been warning about the impact of obesity on the U.S. military for more than a decade. The pandemic has amplified the issue, according to retired Marine Corps Brigadier General Stephen Cheney, who co-authored a recent report on the problem.

“It is devastating. We have a dramatic national security problem,” Cheney said.

Obesity can make it difficult for service members to meet core fitness requirements, which differ depending on the military branch. Failing to pass the Army Combat Fitness Test, a recently updated measure of ability, could result in probation or end a soldier’s military career.

The rise in obesity among soldiers, mirrors trends noted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which warned that in 2020, nearly one in five of all service members were obese. Furthermore, a survey of American adults last year revealed that nearly half of all the participants reported gaining weight after the first year of the COVID-19 emergency.

Dr. Amy Rothberg, an endocrinologist at the University of Michigan who directs a weight-loss program, said that the rise in obesity among service members is not surprising, as stress often leads to weight gain.

She called for a comprehensive approach to addressing the issue, including examining the food offered in military cafeterias, understanding sleep patterns and treating service members with issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rothberg also suggested that a new category of anti-obesity drugs, including semaglutide, marketed as Wegovy, could be a powerful aid in addressing the problem. While TRICARE, the Defense Department’s health plan, covers such drugs, uptake remains low, with just 174 service members receiving prescriptions since Wegovy was approved in June 2021.

It remains to be seen how the Army and other branches of the military will respond to the issue of obesity among their ranks. With the pandemic still raging and the health of military personnel affecting national security, this is a problem that cannot be ignored.

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