Could national security be harmed if young people don't get in shape?

By Sandy Kleffman

Contra Costa Times

Published: Thursday, Nov. 10 2011 5:35 a.m. MST

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — The nation's young adults are getting too fat, and unfit, to fight.

That is the conclusion of a group of retired military leaders who noted Wednesday that one in four Americans are now too overweight to enlist.

The nation's obesity crisis, the group said, threatens national security.

"You have a shrinking pool of eligible people, and that pool has got to start going the other way," said retired Army Major General James Comstock. "That's why it's a security issue."

The group, called Mission: Readiness, issued its report on the eve of Veterans Day. It is comprised of 250 retired generals, admirals and other top military brass.

It urged schools to ensure that physical education requirements are met and that students have trained instructors and adequate facilities and equipment.

The group noted that California high school students spend on average just 22 minutes per day in moderate-to-vigorous activities during physical education classes, middle school students spend 16 minutes, and elementary school students nine minutes.

Making matters worse: only 15 percent of 17-year-olds participate in daily physical education activities.

Nationwide, about 75 percent of American young people are not eligible for the military because of weight problems, criminal histories, not meeting the educational requirements and other problems.

The military is meeting its recruitment goals, in part because the slumping economy limits available private-sector jobs.

But Comstock said he and other military leaders worry that if the economy improves and people have more options, recruitment will suffer, particularly if American children keep getting heavier.

Even for recruits who meet the weight requirements, being unfit before enlisting can pose other problems, the group noted.

Unfit recruits have higher rates of sprains and stress fractures, and inactive males are three times more likely to be medically discharged than people who exercised or played sports three or more times a week before joining.

Physical fitness is more important for the military today than it has ever been, said retired Navy Admiral Leon "Bud" Edney.

"If you've been to Afghanistan and understand the difficulty, there is no time to rest," Edney said. "You are always on alert."

A quarter of medical evacuations from Iraq and Afghanistan to Germany were for serious sprains and stress fractures, the group noted. That compares to 14 percent due to combat injuries.

(c)2011 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

Visit the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.) at www.contracostatimes.com

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