After gaining 30 pounds during the COVID-19 pandemic, US Army Staff Sergeant Daniel Murillo is finally back in fighting shape.
On the morning of the pandemic lockdowns, endless hours on the laptop and increased stress led Murillo, 27, to reach for cookies and chips in the fortifications at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. The gyms were closed, the training was organic and Murillo had discarded his reason for working out.
“Murillo,” said Murillo, who is 5 feet, five inches tall and weighs 1912 pounds. “It’s a tighter uniform.”
Murillo is not the only member of staff dealing with extra weight. New research has found that obesity has emerged as a pandemic in the US. In the Army alone, nearly 10,000 active duty soldiers developed obesity between February 2019 and June 2021, pushing the rate to nearly a quarter of the force studied. Increases were seen in the Navy and Marines as well.
“The Army and other services are focusing on how to bring troops back to fitness,” said Tracey Perez Koehlmoos, director of the Center for Uniformed Services Research at the University in Bethesda, Maryland, who led the research.
Overweight and obese people are more easily injured and less able to tolerate the physical demands of their profession. The military loses more than 650,000 workers each year due to obesity and obesity-related health care costs exceed $1.5 billion annually for current and former federal service members and their families, it shows.
More recent data won’t be available until later this year, Koehlmoos said. But there is no sign that the trend may end, a long-standing concern about the availability of America’s fighting forces.
Military leaders have been warning about the impact of obesity on the US military for more than a decade, but the lingering effects of the pandemic highlight the need for urgent action, said retired Marine Corps Brigadier General Stephen Cheney, who co-authored the recent report. doubt
“The numbers haven’t gotten any better,” Cheney said in a November webinar than the American Security Project, a nonprofit think tank. “It just got worse and worse and worse.”
In fiscal year 2022, the Army failed to meet its initial repair goal, falling short by 15,000 recruits, or a quarter of the requirement. That’s mostly because three-quarters of Americans ages 17 to 24 are ineligible for military service for a number of reasons, including being overweight. Being overweight is the biggest risk factor for an individual, affecting more than 1 in 10 potential recruits, according to the report.
“It would be devastating. We have a dramatic national security problem,” Cheney said.
Extra weight can make it difficult for service members to meet core fitness requirements, which differ by military type. In the Army, for example, if soldiers can pass the Army Combat Fitness Test, a newly updated measure of ability, it can result in a test or end up in the military.
Koehlmoos and his team analyzed the medical records for all active duty soldiers in the Military Security Data System repository, a comprehensive archive. They looked at two periods: before the pandemic, from February 2019 to January 2020, and during the crisis from September 2020 to June 2021. They excluded soldiers without complete records in both periods and those who were pregnant the year before or during the period. study
Researchers from a cohort of nearly 20,000 soldiers who remained, found that nearly 27% of those who were healthy before the pandemic became overweight. And about 16% of those who were overweight before. Before the pandemic, about 18% of soldiers were obese; By 2021, it has grown to 23%.
The researchers relied on the measurement of BMI, or body mass index, as a ratio of weight and height to position weight status. A person with a BMI of 18.5 to 25 is considered healthy, while a BMI of 25 to less than 30 is considered overweight. A BMI of 30 or higher is classified as obese. Some experts say BMI is a flawed measure that fails to account for underlying muscle mass or health status, though it remains a widely used tool.
In Murillo’s case, his BMI during the pandemic was about 32. The North Carolina Army soldier knew he needed help, and he turned to a military dietitian and began a strict exercise program through Holistic Health and Fitness, or H2F.
“He runs two times a week, 4 to 5 miles,” Murillo said. “One morning I wanted to leave, but I hung in there.”
Over the months, Murillo slowly managed to get back on track. Now, his BMI is above 27, which falls under the defense standard, Koehlmoos said.
He found increases in other branches of the service, but first focused on the Army. The research fits with trends reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has warned that by 2020, nearly 1 in 5 of all service members will be obese.
The steady increase in obesity among service members is “frightening,” Cheney said. “Country fat has not been approached as a real problem,” he added.
Putting on extra pounds during the pandemic wasn’t just a military issue. About last year, it was found that almost half of American adults regained the weight after the first year of being affected by COVID-19. Another study found a sharp rise in obesity among kids during the pandemic. Grief comes to a country where more than 40% of American adults and nearly 20% of children struggle with chronic pain, according to the CDC.
“Why do we think that a soldier is different from a person who is not in the military?” said Dr. Amy Rothberg, an endocrinologist at the University of Michigan, who oversees weight loss programs. “In stress, we want to store calories.”
It will take broad measures to address the problem, including looking at the food offered in military canteens, understanding sleep patterns and dealing with service members with problems such as PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, Rothberg said. For obesity as a chronic disease that requires comprehensive care, not just strength, is the key. “We need to meet military members where they are,” he said.
A new class of effective anti-obesity drugs, including semaglutide, marketed by Wegovy, could be a powerful help, Rothberg said. TRICARE, the Medicare health plan, covers such drugs, but uptake remains low. As of June 2021, when Wegovy was approved, just 174 service members have received prescriptions, TRICARE officials said. Novo Nordisk, which makes Wegovy, filed a report with the security group but did not initiate the investigation, Rothberg said.
“People are working hard and giving us whatever tools we have,” Rothberg said.
Jonel Aleccia of the Associated Press wrote this story.
The Associated Press receives a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Science and Media Education Department of the Department of Health and Science. AP is solely responsible for all content.
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