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Is it time for a new look at weight and recruitment standards?

With nearly one in three young adults considered too overweight to enter into military service, would-be recruits are taking drastic measures to lose weight and join the military. They will find that the Army height and weight recruitment standards are actually far more lenient than standards for active duty service members.

A comparison of maximum allowable height, weight and percent body fat for new recruits as compared to the standards for active duty Soldiers shows the difference in standards. Male recruits, age group 17-20, may have up to 6% higher body fat and can weigh an average of 9 ½ pounds more than their active duty counterparts. Female recruits, age group 17-20, may have 2% more body fat and weigh an average of 4½ pounds more than active duty female Soldiers.

New recruits are given 180 days from the time they enter military service to achieve the standards expected for the active duty population. If they fail to do so, they are flagged and enrolled in the Army Body Composition Program where they may be chaptered out of the Army.

Working as an Army dietitian, I am familiar with the struggle for Soldiers to lose weight and maintain weight loss. It is not uncommon for Soldiers to report weight loss of 50 or more pounds to meet the initial recruitment standards for height, weight and body fat.

Soldiers have shared the drastic, unhealthy measures they take to lose weight, including starvation diets and/or excessive exercise. The expectation that they must lose an additional amount of weight and/or body fat to satisfy active duty standards is, to put it plainly, unrealistic.

Weight loss and even weight maintenance is tough for anyone and Soldiers are no exception. Over time, Soldiers regain rather than lose weight, increasing their risk of injury and disease. Indeed, the negative repercussions of unhealthy weight loss strategies are most notable in the long run.

Highly restrictive diets are known to slow metabolism, increase muscle loss, and propagate binge eating behaviors. Once in the active military, Soldiers are faced with overcoming these challenges, while having to lose additional weight and maintaining the weight they have lost.

Staggering healthcare costs associated with weight related injuries and diseases supports a reexamination of current recruitment height/weight and body fat standards. One proposal is to implement a screening program for recruits who report weight loss of 20 or more pounds prior to entry into service.

Identifying these individuals as “at risk” for weight regain early on can assist military health professionals to start early interventions before an injury, disease state or weight regain occurs.

Finally, height, weight and body fat standards should be consistent from entry to military service through active duty military service. If recruits are accepted into service under one standard, is it reasonable to hold them accountable to a more stringent standard once they have already signed on the dotted line?

— Capt. Kira P. Heartwick is an Army dietitian with the Army’s Holistic Health and Fitness (H2F) pilot program.

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