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Army pushes fitness; all of America should start doing the same

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This probably won’t surprise you: Most Americans are overweight and out of shape. We eat food that’s not good for us and we eat too much of it. We don’t, however, tend to overdo our exercise. We’re a pretty sedentary bunch.

This, however, might come as a surprise: The Army has a fitness problem too. At any given time, more than 100,000 soldiers are unable to deploy, more because of injuries suffered in training than for any other reason. Some Army leaders believe healing is delayed for many soldiers because they aren’t as physically fit as they should be.

And then the news gets worse. Replacing soldiers is harder than ever. The Army’s target recruiting market — young adults between 17 and 24 — is in lousy shape. It’s so bad that 72 percent of them are ineligible to serve in the military. Nearly a third of them are simply too overweight. That’s 24 million of the 34 million in that age group who wouldn’t be eligible for a military career even if they wanted one. And now that the national economy has improved and we’re at full employment, most of those remaining 10 million who might qualify for military service are taking their careers elsewhere.

Among the nation’s young people, those from this region tend to be the least fit of all. As a story in The Fayetteville Observer reported, a study conducted by the military school, The Citadel, in conjunction with the Army Public Health Center and the American Heart Association, found that recruits from 10 states — including the Carolinas — are “significantly less fit, and consequently are more likely to encounter training related injuries than recruits from other U.S. states.” And yet, those 10 states account for more than 37 percent of the Army’s new recruits in recent years.

The Army is studying ways to overcome problems of recruit and soldier fitness, and is developing new standards for physical testing, as well as moving toward creating Soldier Performance Readiness Centers in combat units that include strength and conditioning coaches, physical therapists, nutritionists, sports psychologists and counselors. The centers would aim to prevent injuries and speed the recovery of soldiers who do get injured.

This would be yet another place where the military could provide leadership for civilian society — which needs the help. As obesity becomes a greater national problem, we’re also seeing epidemics of diabetes, heart disease and other severe health problems that are as taxing to the civilian workplace as they are to Army combat units.

Even as American youth are getting heavier and less fit, schools have cut back or even eliminated physical education and other school programs that get kids up and moving. And in an era when young eyes are perpetually glued to phone, tablet or PC screens, most time out of school is spent in sedentary pursuits as well.

Again, those problems are greatest here and in the states around us. The Citadel study shows rates of diabetes, heart disease and some cancers are greater here than in the rest of the country, and that the rates of obesity and physical inactivity are correspondingly higher as well.

This is a societal problem that is costing us a fortune in lost work time and in health care costs. The trend lines are going in the wrong direction — it’s getting worse, not better.

The solution? Paying attention to what the Army is doing would be a good place to start. Not only is the service revamping its physical training requirements, it’s also putting a strong emphasis on healthy eating.

Education is a key — helping soldiers understand the damage they can do to themselves by failing to stay in shape and by consuming a diet heavy in fast food and refined ingredients. America needs a similar program.

Continuous education about tobacco’s harm has led to substantial decreases in America’s smoking habit. A similar effort on good food and exercise could pay off as well. So would school systems’ increased emphasis on physical training.

It’s worth a try. Lives are at stake.

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