Addressing America’s obesity crisis can improve military readiness

Thirteen years ago, a small cadre of retired military leaders came together to form an organization called Mission: Preparedness to raise awareness of a significant challenge to our nation’s security. At the time, the Department of Defense had just released shocking figures showing that 75% of 17- to 24-year-olds nationwide were ineligible for military service. This challenge stemmed from three key factors: recruits were not academically prepared, were significantly overweight, or had criminal records or drug abuse.

Over the years, Mission: Readiness membership has grown to nearly 800 retired admirals and generals. We have leveraged our collective experience to achieve meaningful change across the state, including improved school nutrition, preservation of physical education programs, and additional early childhood resources, after-school programs, and summer learning initiatives.

In 2013, the Department of Defense Joint Advertising, Marketing Research and Studies released an updated study showing a shift from 75% to 71% ineligibility. This change was not due to a significant improvement in the causative factors. Instead, the study revised and updated previous estimates using more recent data and by including correlations of disqualifying conditions that represented overlap between multiple disqualifying factors.

This summer, the Department of Defense released preliminary details from its Qualified Military Availability Study, which showed the ineligibility rate had climbed from 71% to 77%. This time it wasn’t about enhanced data.

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Instead, the results showed that factors contributing to the main causes of ineligibility have worsened. It is also important to note that the study was completed in 2020 and therefore does not cover all the effects of COVID-19.

Despite this dire news, it is important to recognize that we have made significant progress over the past decade in preparing America’s youth to become productive members of society. For example, national high school graduation rates have improved and crime rates have decreased. While this improvement is encouraging, we need to continue to build on this progress and, just as importantly, address several problem areas.

Specifically, we continue to see an increase in youth obesity rates. From 2017 to 2020, obesity prevalence was 19.7% among children and adolescents aged 2 to 19 years, affecting approximately 14.7 million individuals. By all accounts, the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. The CDC recently released a report quantifying how pandemic-related disruptions have affected weight gain. Among those studied, 19.3% were obese in 2019, compared to 22.4% the following year.

The high rate of military ineligibility is the result of decades of negative policies, habits, and inaction that have dramatically affected our society—especially children. The fight against these challenges will take decades if we do not come together and invest in the health of our children, where they live, learn and play.

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Fortunately, there are several measures that can make a big difference in the lives of these children while strengthening long-term national security.

For example, ensuring that all children have consistent access to fresh and nutritious food throughout the year is critical to ensuring that children grow up healthy and ready to succeed. Increasing funding for school feeding programs is essential to support children’s access to healthy food. Congress should work to expand access to healthy meals for all children through the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition and Farm Bill, which occurs every five years.

Regular physical activity in children and adolescents strengthens health, fitness and cognitive functions. Experts recommend that children and adolescents ages 6 to 17 get 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each day. Schools are a great place to help ensure this.

Other places where children can be offered a physical education and physical activity curriculum are after-school and summer learning programs. These programs help mitigate the negative side effects of time away from school and increase student achievement. A meta-analysis of 68 after-school programs across the country found that participants did better on state tests in reading and math, had higher GPAs and were more in school.

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Make no mistake, the factors fueling America’s growing military inadequacy are matters of national security, but this challenge has much broader implications. Every sector of society is actively competing for the 23% of young people between the ages of 17 and 24 who are healthy, well-educated and have clean records. Therefore, our nation will greatly benefit if we work together to increase this percentage and prepare our youth to be ready and able to serve their nation in whatever way they choose.

Retired General Richard B. Myers was the 15th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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