Unfit for Service: The Implications of Rising Obesity for U.S. Military Recruitment

John Cawley, Johanna Catherine Maclean

NBER Working Paper No. 16408
Issued in September 2010
NBER Program(s):Children, Health Economics, Labor Studies, Public Economics

Excess body weight or body fat hinders performance of military duties. As a result, the U.S. military has weight-for-height and percent body fat standards for enlistment. This paper estimates the number and percent of military-age civilians who meet, and do not meet, the current active duty enlistment standards for weight and body fat for the four major armed services (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps), using data from the full series of National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys that spans 1959-2008. We find that the percent of civilian military-age men and women who satisfy current military enlistment standards for weight-for-height and percent body fat has fallen considerably. This is due to a large increase in the percentage who are both overweight and overfat, which roughly doubled for men and more than tripled for women between 1959-62 and 2007-08. As of 2007-08, 5.7 million men (11.70%) and 16.5 million women (34.65%) of military age exceed the U.S. Army's enlistment standards for weight-for-height and percent body fat. The implications of rising obesity for the U.S. military are especially acute given its recent difficulties in recruiting a sufficient number of new high quality service members in the midst of combat operations overseas.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w16408

Published: Cawley, John, and Johanna Catherine Maclean. "Unfit for Service: The Implications of Rising Obesity for U.S. Military Recruitment." Health Economics, 2012, 21(11): 1348-1366. citation courtesy of

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