In 1906, Teddy Roosevelt mandated the Army’s first physical fitness test. Since then, the Army has revisited its physical readiness programs repeatedly, seeking to find a cure for poor fitness and obesity. Today’s Health and Holistic Fitness program is the latest incarnation in this long line of efforts, and unfortunately, it will fail like each effort before it.
It will not fail because the science is wrong, or because the equipment and training are lacking, or because leaders are not earnestly committed to it. It will fail because it applies a downstream solution to an upstream problem.
Just as we can’t expect to clean up a river by collecting trash at its mouth while a factory continues to dump sludge into it, we can’t expect to create a fit force while the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) continues to pollute our Soldiers’ bodies.
It is time to align AAFES’s mission with the Army’s mission and put readiness over profits.
Today’s active-duty force abuses alcohol 20% more than the general population, smokes 50% more, and has a 17% obesity rate despite access to nutritionists, gyms, and wellness centers. What about the Army lifestyle explains how America’s healthiest 1% can join the Army only to become so unhealthy? What explains the 0 to 17% transformation in obesity from recruit to soldier?
A large part of the answer can be found in your nearest shoppette. Last year AAFES stores posted sales exceeding $5 billion, largely by enabling our addictions to dip, Doritos, and drinking. On every base, AAFES offers tobacco at state minimum prices, deals on candy bars, and alcohol without tax. Soldiers can either embrace these cheap, unhealthy options or take a 30-minute trip off-post to find healthy options that cost a premium. The results are obvious. For a force pressed on time and money, 2-for-1 Monster energy drinks, discounted hot dogs, and chewing tobacco are the regular lunch plan.