The number of disabled veterans is rising. And so, too, is their weight.
A new study, based on a survey of more than 33,000 post-9/11 service members and veterans, found that 51.7 percent of wounded warriors have a body mass index that qualifies them as obese — up from 48.6 percent two years ago. Of those, 6.2 percent are morbidly obese.
Even more grim? The percentage of vets who are overweight in 2018 is nearly seven times greater than the percentage of those who are not, according to the study released today by Wounded Warrior Project and the nonprofit’s research partner, Westat.
Fewer than half of survey participants, 42 percent, said they exercised at least three times a week, and those who maintained healthy eating habits were also in the minority.
Many listed lack of time, fear of injury and discomfort in social situations as reasons for not working out more. But the report’s authors also link struggles with depression, sleep, stress and the military-to-civilian transition as factors that could be impacting weight gain in the wounded warrior population.
“I think with any type of uncertainty and/or change, there is a heightened sense of stress,” said Melanie Mousseau, metrics director for Wounded Warrior Project. “With stress comes a myriad of other challenges.”
In the study, veterans said the most challenging parts of transitioning out included missing the camaraderie of the military, problems adapting to the civilian workforce and difficulty navigating the red tape at the Defense and Veterans Affairs Departments during the transition process.
“I only feel comfortable in combat,” one veteran wrote. “I do not feel comfortable in civilian life or trust it.”
And another put it this way: “After leaving a structured environment like the military, it’s difficult to be around people without a standard.”
More than 90 percent of the veterans and service members who responded to the Wounded Warrior Project survey between March and May 2018 were enlisted, and 45 percent deployed three or more times during their career.
Sixty-two percent had received a disability rating of 80 percent or higher, and the vast majority of respondents reported that they suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, trouble sleeping, and back, neck or shoulder pain.
While the rate of obesity reported in the study is notably higher than that of the general adult population in the U.S., according to the National Center for Health Statistics, obesity among this group is “compounded by a unique set of issues and circumstances,” Mousseau said.
Diana Thomas, a professor at West Point, said contributing factors to obesity are complex. She pointed to research that has shown a relationship between stress and weight gain, as well as a study which found higher weight gain in people who were once fit.
“Transition to civilian life will no longer have weigh-ins or structured PT. So it is possible that a change in lifestyle leads to a change in structured habits,” she said in an email. “One thing we know is that during physical activity, there is a phenomena called compensation. Basically, we eat more. If this is not reversed when PT stops, then it will lead to weight gain.”
When asked about strategies for combating obesity, especially for a population of veterans dealing with physical and mental limitations, Thomas suggested walking and swimming, which are “low impact exercises.”
And for veterans who struggle to work out because of uneasiness in social situations, she recommends finding a structured workout time with a personal trainer.
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.