2 November 2016

The battle of the bulge: Many of Canada’s troops are fat

By Alan Freeman 
October 29, 2016

A Canadian military unit marches in an August parade marking Polish Armed Forces Day in Warsaw. (Alik Keplicz/Associated Press)

OTTAWA — Canada has often been criticized for failing to pull its weight as a military partner in organizations like NATO because of its relatively low level of defense spending.

But it’s a weight problem of another kind that’s currently dogging the Canadian Armed Forces. Many members of the Canadian military are fat, and authorities aren’t sure what to do about it.

According to a recently published survey on health and lifestyle conducted by the Canadian military, 49 percent of all Regular Force personnel were considered overweight and 25 percent were considered obese, based on body mass index. This included 6.1 percent of personnel considered morbidly obese.

The survey, based on self-reporting done by a sample of military personnel in 2013-14, showed a continued increase in obesity levels from earlier surveys. The report’s authors blamed part of the problem on too much sitting around and poor eating habits. Regular Force personnel reported spending an average of 30.5 hours a week in sedentary activities, an increase of 6.35 hours from 2004, the report said.

“The increase in sedentary activities was almost entirely driven by an increase in time spent using computers and surfing the internet,” the report said. Video games were also a major factor, with participation in sedentary activities even higher than average among soldiers ages 18 to 29.

According to the survey, 17.4 percent of Canadian Armed Forces personnel reported being unable to deploy overseas because of health problems, including 25 percent of those considered obese. More than half of the respondents said they intended to lose weight over the next year.

Scott Malcolm, director of Force Health Protection for the Canadian Forces, insisted in an interview that BMI should not be used as a proxy for fitness and that the index is used primarily to determine members’ risk of heart attack, stroke and diabetes. “Our risks are about at par with Canadian or North American society,” he added.

In the United States, the Pentagon is also reportedly concerned about excess weight among its personnel, but not at the same level. According to a recent report in the Military Times, 7.8 percent of the U.S. military is considered overweight, based on a similar BMI test, although it was not immediately known if the two surveys were comparable.

Malcolm said that he hadn’t seen the U.S. study but that at first glance it seemed the two surveys would be “apples and oranges.” Among other things, the U.S. military is considerably younger than Canada’s, he said.

“There is a problem,” said Scott Taylor, editor and publisher of Esprit de Corps, an independent Canadian military magazine.

Taylor, a former infantryman, says that Canadian combat troops are extremely fit but that there are relatively few of them in the Canadian military. “We’ve got one of the worst ratios of headquarters to combat units anywhere,” he said. And it’s at headquarters in Ottawa, he said, that “you’re going to get guys taking the bus and eating pizza.” Taylor says the Canadian military is so top-heavy that there are now more personnel in Ottawa headquarters than there are in all of the Royal Canadian Navy.

Because it’s an all-volunteer force, the Canadian military is worried about retention, so it has trouble enforcing fitness standards for aging members and has even given up on fitness standards for recruits. Instead, Taylor says, it will send recruits who aren’t fit enough to what he calls “the fat farm,” a special program to get newcomers up to standard before they start basic training.

Arya Sharma, an obesity expert at the University of Alberta who has worked with the Canadian Armed Forces, says that what’s happening with Canadian soldiers is indicative of the weight problems affecting the population at large, noting that many soldiers have desk jobs or other sedentary positions.

He also says that BMI can be a poor indicator of excess weight because some people have a high BMI because of muscle mass. “You can be big and healthy,” he said. And he noted that members can be in stressful jobs, have a lot of shift work and, in some cases, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which can contribute to weight gain.

Malcolm said the Canadian Armed Forces are improving on healthy food options in military cafeterias and aboard ships and trying to make physical fitness part of the daily routine. But, he adds, “behavioral change is a challenge.”

No comments: