It’s drilled into them that their bodies are temples, but they abuse them all too often.
The service lifestyle can be one of extremes: from ‘Op Massive’ - personnel vying to tone up their bodies in the gym on tour - to ‘hanging one on’ most weekends in the bar.
And every so often it comes to public notice that our forces have members who aren’t fit enough to fight for their country.
Tens of thousands of serving British Army personnel are at risk of health problems such as Type 2 diabetes, shortness of breath and high blood pressure due to obesity, according to data from the Ministry of Defence.
Don’t they get paid to work out? Get free access to gyms? Undergo compulsory fitness tests?
But aren’t they, like the rest of society, trying to do more for less, covering overstretch, and finding it hard to fit it all into the working day?
In recent years the Army has encouraged personnel to take more responsibility for their own fitness in their own time. There are fewer enforced physical training sessions. If it’s not an order barked at them, are soldiers likely to choose 0630 runs in the rain?
Does it help that the cookhouse offers a full fry-up for breakfast and chips and stodgy puddings at every other mealtime?
On operations such as desert combat, troops have had to consume 4,000-8,000 calories a day, to keep their energy levels up in such a physically demanding environment. Adding a healthy option to their ration packs was a lower priority than hitting the calorie target, making the food varied and non-perishable in the climate.
Of course, there, they were working it off. But back home, do personnel who by nature work hard, play hard - prefer a salad? Or resist the kebab van on the way home after a boozy night out?
They also come from a section of society more prone to picking up injuries. Whether on duty or adventurous training, or through fast-living, soldiers, sailors and airmen find their way into scrapes. Years of marching and spending nights in damp ditches on exercise take their toll in later service life – the more rotund senior sergeant or chief petty officer who’s exempt from PT because of a dodgy knee can be a familiar figure in most units.
Obesity affects the military, just as it does the society from which its members are drawn. Ministry of Defence figures show that between 2010 and September 2014, 16,400 troops were found to be obese.
And if more reservists are to be encouraged, to meet government targets of a slimmed-down full-time force, that will impact fitness further – are people with two jobs going to find the time to train? Especially if bureaucracy doesn’t make it easy for them? An ex-regular officer told me just last week that the Army won’t give him access to his local camp (at the end of his garden) to use the gym - because his reserve unit isn’t based there. Where’s the incentive?
50 troops have been dismissed from the Army for obesity since 2002. If unfitness is getting to the point of harming operational effectiveness, is it time for a more regimented approach? Healthier meal choices, more regularly checked fitness targets – could we see personnel being issued with a camo-fitness tracker? With their Physical Training Instructors being emailed daily step results? Team competitions with fines and humiliation are part of service life – maybe the latest Defence Fat Club could remotely send vibrating wrist-reminders to lazier troops, urging them to get off the sofa or waking them with an early alarm and an order to jog into work?
Of course, rights would be infringed. But in a military which already dictates so much of its members’ lives – even keeping hold of their passports – just what is a step too far, in the battle of the stable-belt bulge?
THE BASIC FITNESS TEST:
For servicemen under 30:
- 50 sit-ups within two minutes
- 44 press-ups within two minutes
- 1.5 mile run in under 10 minutes and 30 seconds
For female soldiers under 30:
- 50 sit-ups within two minutes
- 21 press-ups within two minutes
- 1.5 mile run in 13 minutes or less
Once a year, troops are also expected to complete an eight-mile march carrying a rucksack weighing up to 25kg within two hours.