Mission: Readiness and Health Clubs Help Prepare Future Generations to Serve

70% of U.S. adults are unfit to serve in the armed forces. We asked U.S. Army Brigadier General Blake Williams how gyms can help reverse this trend.

An abbreviated version of the following interview was originally published in the November issue of Club Business International.

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On November 11, Americans will celebrate Veteran's Day to honor the men and women who have served this country.

Unfortunately, this holiday also reminds us that more than 70% of young adults in the U.S. are currently unfit to serve. To learn more about this problem, what is causing it, and how to address it, we interviewed retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Blake Williams. General Williams currently sits on Congressman Mark Walker’s Service Academy Selection board and is an active Mission: Readiness supporter. Here is what General Williams had to say about why Americans are not physically fit for military service and how health clubs can take action to change that:

Please tell us more about Mission: Readiness. What's the goal of the program?

General Williams: Mission: Readiness is a nonpartisan national security organization of more than 700 retired admirals and generals. The organization was launched in 2009 when a small group of retired military leaders—including two former Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—became alarmed that many young Americans were not qualified for military service. They recruited fellow retired admirals and generals to launch a nationwide effort to address the leading disqualifiers—lack of education, obesity, serious criminal history, and drug abuse.

The goal of Mission: Readiness isn’t to steer kids into a life of military service. Our retired admirals and generals believe that we all have a responsibility to help young people stay in school, stay fit, and stay out of trouble so they can succeed at whatever they choose in life—including a career in the military if that's what they wish.

How does physical activity—or lack thereof—play a role in being unfit to serve?

General Williams: Obesity is now the leading medical disqualifier from military service, with nearly one in three young Americans being too heavy to serve. Our culture has been changing over the years and young people are spending more time with entertainment rather than running, biking, or playing organized sports.

Studies have shown that young people at preschool ages who are educated in physical fitness and eating healthy are able to more easily develop a healthy lifestyle in their teens. However, that does not solve the immediate challenges. We must encourage local communities and towns to get engaged with young people, supporting kids in sports.

It takes years to build a strong, healthy body, and the foundation for good fitness is laid in childhood and young adulthood. But in the midst of today’s obesity crisis, most students still do not participate in adequate levels of physical activity. Seven out of 10 youths nationwide are not getting the 60 minutes of daily physical activity recommended by health experts, and 50% of high school students do not have physical education (PE) one day a week.

What are Mission: Readiness and allied organizations doing to address the obesity crisis?

General Williams: Mission: Readiness members support efforts to get more opportunities for physical activity back into schools. Daily physical education has been shown to decrease the odds of a child becoming an overweight adult by as much as 28%.

We also support more opportunities for physical activity in communities, including the “Safe Routes to School” program that allows children to safely walk and bike to school. Research shows that simply walking or biking to and from school can provide children with 16 additional minutes of moderate or vigorous physical activity per day—just over one-quarter of the daily amount recommended by experts.

We also know that maintaining a healthy weight requires a proper diet in addition to regular physical activity. Good nutrition starts at home, but many kids get up to half of their daily calories at school so it makes sense to ensure they are eating healthfully there, too.

That is why the retired generals and admirals of Mission: Readiness strongly supported the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act in 2010. This bipartisan legislation required the U.S. Department of Agriculture to update nutrition standards for meals and snacks available and sold in schools.

Millions of students are now eating healthier school meals with more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins. Candy and many other high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks and beverages found in school vending machines have been replaced with healthier snacks and drinks.

Healthier meals will not only help prevent weight gain but also provide the right nutrients that can enhance physical activity and healthier bone and muscle growth.

The trend is clear: healthy eating and exercise practices in childhood lead to healthy habits in adulthood. That is why it is so important to provide children with healthy school meals and more opportunities for physical activity in school and in the community. This will help ensure that those who want to join the military are fit enough to do so.

A few weeks of basic training cannot undo a lifetime of bad habits for young men and women who want to serve our nation right now. We need comprehensive action that involves parents, schools, and communities to help children understand and make healthy choices so that our obesity crisis does not become a national security crisis.

When I was First Army trainer, we had 18 mobilization sites across the country training around 92,000 service members a year. I talked to thousands of enlisted men and women and encouraged them to focus on their training because it meant surviving on the battlefield. I also told them to eat well and exercise so they were prepared to enter this dangerous, hot, and dirty environment—emphasizing that having a healthy body and mind allows us to make the right decisions quickly and effectively when under stress. Lastly, I encouraged them to take care of their spirits because, at the time, many of us were unsure about what the end of the day would bring.

“We need comprehensive action that involves parents, schools, and communities to help children understand and make healthy choices so that our obesity crisis does not become a national security crisis.”

U.S. Army Brigadier General Blake Williams

Mission: Readiness

What are some of the biggest challenges to finding a lasting solution to this problem?

General Williams: The obesity problem has been getting worse for decades, and it takes years to build a strong, healthy body so this problem won’t be solved overnight. To prepare today’s young people to do the work of our nation, we need to ensure that children are given every opportunity to lead a healthy and active lifestyle.

To accomplish this, we need to develop a partnership between parents, communities, schools, policymakers, and other important stakeholders to promote active lifestyles so more of our youth adopt lifelong healthy living habits.

What can health clubs do to address the problem in their communities?

General Williams: I saw that your website has excellent tools and resources to help clubs implement health promotion programs in their clubs and communities, including ways to get kids and adolescents more active. This is a great place to start.

Health clubs could also advocate for physical education in schools. PE is an integral part of any student's education. These lessons help them discover how their bodies move and how they can perform a variety of physical activities. Through this type of education, students can learn about the health-related benefits of regular physical activity and acquire the skills they need to adopt an active and healthy lifestyle.

During the summer months, clubs should spread the word about programs they're running for kids to keep them active whenever they're away from school. It might also be helpful to contact local Army Reserve and National Guard centers to see if they offer programs for service members and their families.

Do you see opportunities for the health club industry to collaborate on initiatives with Mission: Readiness?

General Williams: Absolutely. For example, we support your “Why Get Active” social media campaign. Mission: Readiness would also be happy to explore other ways to collaborate.

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Shannon Vogler @vogler_shannon

Shannon Vogler is the Communications and Public Relations Coordinator for IHRSA. Shannon writes articles, press releases, and the IHRSA Advocate newsletter to make IHRSA members aware of policy issues that impact health clubs. She also speaks with media influencers about the benefits of working out and joining a gym. When she's not writing, Shannon enjoys running and cheering for the New England Patriots.