Fat Soldiers

What’s the Army’s policy on overweight recruits?

In an effort to meet its recruitment targets, the Army has begun granting more waivers to people who would otherwise be ineligible to serve—including overweight recruits. What’s the Army policy on fat people?

They’re not particularly welcome. The Army’s basic recruitment standard is linked to a candidate’s body-fat percentage, measured (PDF) by an equation involving height and the circumferences of the abdomen, neck, and—for women—hips. If they’re 27 years old or younger, men must have a body-fat percentage below 26 percent, while women must be below 32 percent.

Typically, however, recruits are first judged against a table that lists an appropriate weight for any given height. The upper limits on the Army’s weight table are slightly more lenient than the definition of “overweight” provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: For example, a 21-year-old male recruit who is 5 foot 10 and weighs 190 pounds would be a bit overweight under CDC guidelines but not above the Army’s weight maximum. (You can also be too skinny to be recruited—the minimum body-mass index (PDF) is 19.) If candidates pass muster according to the table, they don’t need to go through a body-fat measurement.

Because of increasing obesity rates in the United States, the Army’s standards now disqualify a large percentage of the population. A study conducted by Army researchers found that 27.1 percent of the 18-year-olds who applied to join the military in 2006 were overweight—up from 22.8 percent in 1993. Weight is by far the most common medical reason why potential recruits are rejected from serving. And while prospective enlistees can try to make weight before their official screening—often with the support of eager recruiters—the pool of eligible young adults remains smaller than the Army would like.

As a result, the Army has tried to find ways to admit recruits who fall outside the typical boundaries but are still likely to succeed in the service. In particular, the Assessment of Recruit Motivation and Strength—known as ARMS—has become a source of automatic waivers for recruits with a body-fat percentage up to 30 percent for men and 36 percent for women. The ARMS process requires participants to complete a five-minute modified “Harvard step” test—which involves stepping onto a low platform 120 times per minute. After that, applicants must do a certain number of pushups in one minute—at least 15 for men and four for women. Applicants who qualify through the ARMS test get a free pass on being overweight, but they do have to get themselves in shape within a year of entering active duty. Early research suggests that recruits who get ARMS waivers have attrition rates similar to enlistees who enter the Army without a waiver.

Once a recruit makes weight, he’s expected to stay slim. At a minimum, Army personnel are required to take a physical-fitness test every six months, which includes a weight screening. If a soldier is above the maximum body-fat percentage (PDF) for his age, he must take part in a “weight control” program that includes a workout regimen and nutritional counseling. While under an “overweight flag,” soldiers can’t attend a professional military school, be promoted, or even re-enlist.

And yes, you can eat yourself out of the Army: If you don’t eventually make satisfactory progress after being placed in the weight-control program, a commander can initiate “separation proceedings” leading to an eventual discharge.

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Explainer thanks Beth Asch of the RAND Corp., Maj. Nathan Banks of the U.S. Army, and Douglas Smith of the Army Recruiting Command.