U.S. Military Takes On Childhood Obesity

June 16, 2014

Advocates in the quest to overcome childhood obesity have gained an unlikely ally in recent years — the U.S. military.

More specifically, support is coming from senior retired military leaders, who are calling their movement to combat childhood obesity “Mission: Readiness.” Mission: Readiness describes itself as a “nonprofit, nonpartisan national security organization of senior retired military leaders calling for smart investments in America’s children.”

While the connection between childhood obesity and the military may not seem immediately obvious, this stat makes it abundantly clear. According to recent estimates, more than 1 in 5 Americans cannot join the military due to excess weight. That is a startling statistic especially for the military, where the stakes are high when someone cannot physically do the job.

As retired general Richard E. Hawley, a member of the Mission: Readiness Advisory Council, put it, “In the civilian world, unfit or overweight employees can impact the bottom line. But in our line of work, lives are on the line and our national security is at stake.”

Mission: Readiness contends that starting early and instilling good eating and nutrition habits have the potential to provide a lifetime of benefit while ensuring that future soldiers — the “employees” of the military — will be physically fit enough to perform the duties expected of them.

Some employers in civilian life also have physical requirements or barriers to entry for jobs in their companies, for example, in construction, where a worker must be able to lift a certain amount of weight. Even in jobs that don’t have these requirements, physical fitness can be an important part of workplace productivity. And a high fitness level is proven to improve cognitive function, positively affect mood, and increase efficiency.

On the flip side, there’s a very real cost to being overweight on the job — $73.1 billion to be exact. This number comes from a collection of research that estimates the cost of missed work days and a decrease in productivity associated with being obese. So while being out of shape may not directly affect the tasks an employee is assigned to, it has a very real effect on the worker and, to quote General Hawley again, “the bottom line.”

According to data from the Towers Watson Staying@Work survey, 75% of employers surveyed ranked obesity as a top health risk for their employees, second only to workplace stress (78%). Related to this, employers identified “weight/obesity (BMI)” as the number one health factor targeted by outcome-based wellness programs.

The Towers Watson survey makes the connection between company productivity and health clear — “high effectiveness” companies consistently had employees with obesity rates that were 25% lower than “low effectiveness” companies. (High and low effectiveness were assigned based on scores on the Staying@Work Overall Health and Productivity Effectiveness scorecard.)

Even though most employers don’t need employees in “fighting shape,” they do need people who are well and healthy enough to do their jobs — the employer’s bottom line and employee happiness depend on it.

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