Too fat to fight?

December 10, 2002

The notion of a trim, fighting force probably dates back more than 2,000 years. Today, each branch of the U. S. armed services has developed a "Maximum Allowable Weight" chart to screen and determine eligibility for entry into the military. But an article published in the November issue of The American Journal of Medicine questions whether weight alone should determine if an individual is physically fit for service.

Using findings from the Centers for Disease Control's Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III), a 1994 nationwide survey designed to produce a representative sample of the civilian, non-institutionalized U.S. population, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center determined body mass and compared results to the weight charts of Americans already serving in the military. The goal was to identify how many adults aged 17 to 20 years in the general population met in-service military weight standards by sex and race.

Taking into account requirements for all branches of the military, 15 to 20 percent of white men, 13 to 19 percent of black men and 12 to 24 percent of Mexican American men did not meet the standard. For women, the results were even more marked. Twelve to 36 percent of white women, 35 to 56 percent of black women and 26 to 55 percent of Mexican American women did not meet the standard.

The study raises a question about whether the military should be more concerned with image or with fitness. "We need to look at how the military utilizes its weight standard," says Ross Andersen, Ph.D., a lead researcher on the study at Hopkins Bayview. People who are considered overweight may also be physically fit and strong with good aerobic conditioning, he says.

"Factors contributing to young men and women failing the military screening test include a national increase in obesity and the strictness of the military weight standards, especially for women," says Andersen. The World Health Organization and the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute recommend identical weights for men and women of the same height. The military's allowable weight for women, however, excludes a percentage who actually are within healthy ranges, Andersen points out.

The article also cited another study (Prevalence and Contributing Factors of Eating Disorders Behaviors in Active Duty Service Women in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines) that linked military weigh-in standards to eating disorders. Seventy-two percent of the women in the military surveyed met the criteria for an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa or the use of diet pills, laxatives and diuretics to lose weight.

The article was co-authored by Rochelle Nolte, M.D., Shawn C. Franckowiak and Carlos Crespo

Johns Hopkins Medicine

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