When Sports Illustrated subscribers thumbed through the final issue of 1960, they encountered the usual assortment of sporting news. Bart Starr led the Packers past the Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Indiana men’s basketball team continued their winning ways, breezing by Missouri and Nevada on the shoulders of Walt Bellamy. But the sportswriters were overshadowed by someone more famous, the President-elect of the United States.
In “The Soft American,” an op-ed as provocative as its title, John F. Kennedy railed against the declining physical fitness of the American people. He warned that vehicle-focused transportation and television-focused recreation were displacing the active pursuits of an earlier age. After championing the link between physical activity and mental health, he wrote that “physical fitness is as vital to the activities of peace as to those of war.” But Kennedy’s primary focus was national security: our nation must be physically prepared to meet the demands of armed conflict.
Six decades on, how are we doing?
To investigate how the nation is doing 60 years later, we partnered with American College of Sports Medicine members who have expertise in military medicine. We used data collected from January 2015 through March 2020 by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to assess the physical preparedness of the US civilian population. NHANES provides information about the health of Americans through a combination of personal interviews and direct physical examination.
We found that only 47% of the military-aged population (17–42 years) had a body mass index (BMI) within the eligible range for military entrance (19.0–27.5 kg/m2). Unlike previous studies of physical preparedness, we did not limit the investigation to height and weight, because an eligible BMI does not guarantee a person will be ready for the physical demands of initial military training. Lower amounts of physical activity before training are associated with higher rates of musculoskeletal injury during training and medical discharge from training. These are costly outlays—to the individual and to the armed forces.
Therefore, we also determined the proportion of people getting adequate physical activity in the military-aged population. We defined adequate physical activity as reporting the equivalent of at least 300 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity. (This corresponds to the “highly active” category of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition, and is similar to the US Army recommendations for physical activity before entering initial military training.) Using this definition, we found that 28% of the BMI-eligible population were not adequately physically active.
Taken together, only 34% of people aged 17–42 years were both weight-eligible and adequately physically active—what we termed “eligible and active.” Among those aged 17–24 years, who account for the majority of military applicants, the proportion of eligible and active was marginally higher at 41%. In other words, according to our definitions, just two in five young Americans were physically prepared for the rigors of initial military training. Further, we found disparities in the proportion eligible and active by sex, race/ethnicity, educational attainment, and family income level.
What can be done?
In the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, we are working with partners to create a more active America. Active People, Healthy NationSM, CDC’s national physical activity initiative, aims to help 27 million Americans become more active by 2027. The initiative promotes seven evidence-based strategies to increase physical activity. Providing equitable and inclusive access is foundational to each strategy.
Everyone can be involved. From education to transportation to parks and recreation, we have tools and resources available to help people in different sectors take action to encourage physical activity. For example, people working in the education sector could develop activity-friendly policies that facilitate student physical activity before, during, and after school. Considering that most military enlistees in 2030 are currently in elementary or middle school, these policies have the potential for near-term ripple effects on military recruitment.
One strategy we support is building activity-friendly routes to everyday destinations. This strategy focuses on creating sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and paths that connect to common places such as parks, shops, grocery stores, and houses of worship. Activity-friendly communities have many benefits. They promote cleaner environments and stronger local economies. And they support healthier Americans—some of whom will volunteer to serve as our nation’s next generation of soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen, and guardians.
Three weeks before assuming the presidency, JFK sized up the nation’s physical fitness and found it wanting. Get active, he urged. Expand participation in youth sports, promote walking and bicycling to school, encourage the pursuit of a vigorous life. Despite progress in some areas and regression in others, his diagnosis and prescription endure. If you agree that physical inactivity remains “a matter of urgent concern,” consider staying connected with us through Active People, Healthy NationSM.
Disclaimer: The findings and conclusions in this blogpost are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the US Air Force, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.
Bryant Webber, MD, MPH (Lt Col, USAF, MC), Physical Activity and Health Branch, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Kaitlin Graff, MSW, MPH, Program Coordinator, McKing Consulting Corporation/Physical Activity and Health Branch, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Geoffrey Whitfield, PhD, MEd, Physical Activity and Health Branch, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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