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10,000 U.S. Army Soldiers Struggle with Obesity During Pandemic – How You Can Help

by Ethan Kim
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U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Daniel Murillo, 27, gained 30 pounds during the COVID-19 pandemic and is finally recovering from it. Early lockdowns, screen time on laptops and stress made him crave junk food like cookies and chips from the barracks at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Gyms were closed and organized exercise wasn’t possible so his motivation for working out was low.

Murillo, who is 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighed 192 pounds, noticed that his uniform was getting tighter. This wasn’t just happening to him either, since a new study found that obesity in the U.S. military increased due to the pandemic. In the Army alone, almost 10,000 active duty soldiers had developed obesity between February 2019 and June 2021, which means almost a quarter of troops studied had became obese by then. Increases occurred in the Navy and Marines too.

Tracey Perez Koehlmoos, the director of the Center for Health Services Research at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland, says that the Army and other services must focus on improving fitness levels.

Soldiers and military personnel who are overweight or obese are more likely to get hurt than those of normal weights. This means that the military is losing a lot of work days every year (650,000!), which then costs them a lot of money (more than $1.5 billion)! This affects both current and former service members, as well as their families.

We won’t get more up-to-date information until later in the year, said Koehlmoos. But it looks like the problem isn’t ending anytime soon, which is worrying.

For over 10 years, military generals have been warning that obesity affects the U.S. Armed Forces. The Corona pandemic only shows how much we need to do something about it quickly, said Stephen Cheney who co-wrote a report about it recently.

Cheney said during a meeting online in November that the numbers were getting worse and worse. The meeting was held by an organization called the American Security Project, which is kind of like a think tank for non-profit activities.

In the year 2022, the Army was not able to reach its goal of recruiting enough people. This happened because only a quarter of young people aged 17-24 were eligible for military service. The biggest reason for this was weight – 1 in 10 potential recruits already had too much extra weight and were not allowed to join the army.

Vice President Cheney said that we are facing a major problem for national security. Excess weight can make it tough for in the military to pass the physical tests set by their respective branches, like the Army Combat Fitness Test for instance. If they don’t pass this test, their stay in the military might be over or they may face probation.

Koehlmoos and her team studied medical records of all active duty Army soldiers. They looked at what was going on before the pandemic started in February 2019 and during it from September 2020 to June 2021. To make sure their research was accurate, they didn’t include data from people who were pregnant or if the soldier did not have full records for both periods.

Out of 200,000 soldiers that were around before the pandemic, almost 27% of those who used to be healthy gained extra weight. And for those who were overweight before the pandemic, about 16% became obese. Before the pandemic began, 18% of these soldiers were already considered obese and by 2021, it grew to 23%.

Scientists focused on BMI or Body Mass Index, a number which takes into account someone’s height and weight to measure how healthy their size is. If your BMI is between 18.5 and 25 you are considered healthy. A BMI from 25 to less than 30 means you are overweight, and above 30 means obese. But some experts think that the BMI isn’t perfect because it doesn’t consider muscle mass or any other health issues. Even so, it is still a popular way to determine if someone is at a good size or not.

Murillo, an Army soldier from North Carolina, worried about his high body-mass index (BMI) since the pandemic began. He asked a dietician for help and joined the Army’s H2F program to get in shape through regular exercising. Murillo stuck with it by running 4-5 miles two times each week, even though he wanted to give up in some mornings.

Months of work paid off for Murillo, who was able to get his body mass index (BMI) below 27. This means that he fits within the Defense Department’s standards. The same is true for other military branches as well, according to Koehlmoos’s research which was backed up by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They stated that in 2020 around one in five members from all service branches were obese.

Vice President Cheney said that the increase in obesity among service members is really serious. He also stated that the country has not taken obesity as seriously as it should be.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused quite a few people to add extra pounds. Last year, a survey of American adults revealed that nearly half had gained weight since the start of the COVID-19 emergency. Another study also discovered an increase in obesity in kids during this same time. Sadly, 40% of American adults and 20% of children already have obesity issues even before the pandemic started, according to the CDC.

Dr. Amy Rothberg, an endocrinologist from the University of Michigan who develops weight-loss programs, said: “People in the military are not any different than regular people. When we’re under stress, our body naturally tries to hang on to food.”

In order to solve the problem, lots of things need to be looked into, such as checking what kinds of food are offered in military cafeterias and figuring out how much sleep service members are getting. We also must take into consideration any mental health problems like PTSD, which is post-traumatic stress disorder. It is important to remember to treat obesity as an illness that needs comprehensive treatment and not just rely on people’s self motivation. Basically, we have to try our best to meet the military members where they are at.

Experts think that drugs like Wegovy, which is made by Novo Nordisk and was approved for use in June 2021, might be really helpful for people fighting obesity. Although the US Defense Department health plan, TRICARE, will pay for this treatment, only 174 service members have used it so far. The research behind this was funded by Novo Nordisk but not influenced by them.

“Everyone is trying really hard to be healthy and fit, so we are helping them with all the options we have,” Rothberg said. The Big Big News Health and Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Education Media Group. All content is provided by AP only.

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