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Not all Canadian service personnel are "fit to fight".

It came as quite a shock for most Canadians last week when it was reported that almost half of our military personnel are overweight and that a shocking one in four is considered obese.

These statistics--compiled from an internal Canadian Forces health and lifestyle information survey--were certainly surprising for those civilians whose image of our soldiers has become that of the exceptional fit young men and women who comprise our Battle Group in Kandahar. The reason for such a disconnect between the televised warriors and the clinical data is the widening rift in fitness standards between the frontline soldier and the rear echelon support element.

Within certain branches and units of the Canadian Forces, one's level of physical fitness can mean the difference between life and death.

Those who serve in such disciplines as combat arms, fire-fighting and diving, for example, maintain their own demanding set of fitness standards. However, for much of the remainder of the Canadian Forces, their only requirement is passing the annual Minimum Physical Fitness Standard (MPFS) test. And it must be said that the emphasis here is on the word minimum.

The Canadian military currently ranks as one of the lowest in the world in terms of minimum fitness levels. Males up to the age of 35 are required to complete 19 push-ups and 19 sit-ups, while males between the ages of 35 and 60 need only manage 14 push-ups and 15 sit-ups. Females aged between 35 and 60 need only manage seven push-ups and 12 sit-ups.

The Defence Department has a policy requiring its members to comply with what is deemed the universality of service. This means that all service personnel must maintain their health and fitness to those minimal levels so they can be deployed on operations if and when necessary. Nevertheless, DND still felt it was necessary to reduce these standards according to both age and gender.

Despite this ridiculously low criteria, in 2007 over 1,000 members of the Forces failed to pass their fitness tests, It was around this same time that the military took the novel step of removing all fitness requirements from the recruiting procedure.

If a recruit cannot complete a single push-up or sit-up, not to worry: the Canadian Forces welcomes them aboard anyway and provides them with what amounts to a military-style "fat farm" to get them in shape.

The expectation is that unfit recruits will become at least capable of beginning basic training after three months of fitness training.

For those who fail to meet that target but are deemed to be showing progress, the fitness training can be arbitrarily extended beyond three months.

Keep in mind that once enrolled with the Forces, overweight recruits are provided with rations and quarters as well as a full paycheque while military trainers attempt to whip them into shape. This is certainly an inversion of the civilian equivalent, whereby customers pay big money to personal trainers and purchase specialty diet foods in an effort to shed unwanted pounds!

Exacerbating this policy of deliberately recruiting the unfit is the recent extension to the maximum recruiting age. As it stands now, as long as you can complete a three year basic service engagement before your 60th birthday you can enlist in the Canadian Forces. That's right folks! Technically, a 57-year-old obese individual who is unable to do a single push-up could be enrolled into our military.

There are those who will point out that we live in a high-tech world and that, even without brute strength and minimum fitness levels, some very talented, well-educated recruits can make a vital contribution to the Canadian Forces team.

Where this argument falls apart is that, in practise, the universality of service requirement is unfairly being applied to many of those soldiers who have been permanently disabled while fighting in Afghanistan. Many of those deemed by higher authority to be no longer fit for service after having lost a limb recognize that, even with a prosthetic, they are far more physically capable in the field than many of their obese, desk-bound compatriots.

Former chief of defence staff Rick Hillier made it a point to stress physical fitness by setting a personal example of doing daily 75- to 90-minute workouts. While this trait certainly endeared him to the front-line combat soldiers, as the recent survey illustrates,

Hillier's approach failed to inspire the rank and file among headquarters heavies.

In response to the survey, Col. Colin MacKay, the military's director of health protection, told the Canadian Press that "the study results certainly indicate to us that, like the rest of the Canadian population, we're not immune to this epidemic of obesity."

Such a comment is a sad reflection on those who wear their bulging uniforms in the belief that their job is to reflect Canadian society's faults and flaws rather than to pride themselves in remaining fighting fit to defend our national interests.

Scott Taylor publisher
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Title Annotation:ON TARGET?
Author:Taylor, Scott
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2011
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