Report: Obesity In US Military Surged During COVID-19 Pandemic

According to new research, obesity in the U.S. military surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, increasing by 27% among Army soldiers and 49% among Marines.

The Center for Health Services Research found that nearly 10,000 active Army soldiers became obese during the pandemic from February 2019-June 2021, pushing the rate to 25% of troops studied.

The Associated Press (AP) reported on the case of U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Daniel Murillo, who gained 30 pounds during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lockdowns, endless hours on his laptop, gym closures, and heightened stress led to Murillo’s weight gain.

“I could notice it,” said Murillo, who is 5 feet, 5 inches tall, and weighed as much as 192 pounds. “The uniform was tighter.”

“The Army and the other services need to focus on how to bring the forces back to fitness,” said Tracey Perez Koehlmoos, director of the Center for Health Services Research at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Maryland, who led the research.

Federal research shows that obese troops are more likely to receive injuries and less likely to meet the demands of their profession. Obesity costs the military more than 650,000 workdays yearly and exceeds $1.5 billion in annual health costs.

Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Stephen Cheney said the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic show the need for “urgent action” to reduce obesity in the military.

“The numbers have not gotten better,” Cheney said in a November webinar held by the American Security Project, a nonprofit think tank. “They are just getting worse and worse and worse.”

AP News reported that in 2022, the Army failed to meet its recruiting goal for the first time historically, falling short by 15,000 recruits, a quarter of the recruitment.

Approximately 75% of Americans aged 17-24 are ineligible for military service for several reasons, including extra weight. According to the report, being overweight is a main disqualifier, affecting more than 10% of potential recruits.

“It is devastating. We have a dramatic national security problem,” Cheney said.

Koehlmoos and her team studied medical records for all active-duty Army soldiers in the Military Health System Data Repository, a comprehensive archive, looking at two periods: before the pandemic, from February 2019-January 2020, and during the height of the pandemic, from September 2020-June 2021.

They excluded pregnant soldiers and those without complete records in both periods.

Of nearly 200,000 soldiers, researchers found that about 27% who were healthy before the pandemic became obese. The rate of soldiers that became obese before the pandemic was 18% in 2021, growing by 3% in 2023.

The researchers relied on soldiers’ body mass index (BMI), a calculation of weight and height used to categorize weight status. An individual with a BMI of 18-25 is said to be healthy, while a BMI between 26-30 is considered overweight.

Murillo’s BMI during the pandemic nearly reached 32, prompting him to seek advice from a military dietician and start an exercise routine through the Army’s Holistic Health and Fitness program.

“We do two runs a week, 4 to 5 miles,” Murillo said. “Some mornings I wanted to quit, but I hung in there.”

Over several months, Murillo’s BMI dropped to 27, falling within the Department of Defenses’ (DOD) standard.

Obesity wasn’t just a military problem during the pandemic. It was a national issue. A 2022 survey found that nearly half of all American adults reported gaining weight after the first year of COVID-19. Another study found an increase in obesity among kids during the pandemic.

“Why would we think the military is any different than a person who is not in the military?” said Dr. Amy Rothberg, an endocrinologist at the University of Michigan who directs a weight-loss program. “Under stress, we want to store calories.”

Rothberg explained that it would take several measures to address the obesity problem in the military, including offering all soldiers healthier foods in cafeterias, understanding sleep patterns, and treating service members with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“People are working hard at their weight and we have to give them whatever tools we have,” Rothberg said.

Soldiers must physically adapt to meet the needs of the U.S. military. Strong soldiers establish powerful armed forces.