INDIANAPOLIS – While ending the draft in 1973 kept many Americans out of combat, it may have left quite a few fighting a battle for health and fitness. A study published in the September issue of the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) found that six to 12 months of military service helped draftees lose fat, gain muscle and reach a healthy weight. Those who were the most inactive and overweight saw the greatest improvement.
The soldiers studied were Finnish, not American, but military life in both countries starts with a basic training regimen involving athletic activity, training and controlled nutrition. Researchers led by Ilona Mikkola, M.D., followed 1,003 men averaging 19 years of age throughout their military service (six, nine or 12 months.) At the beginning of the study, 7.6 percent were obese, 23.4 percent were overweight, 65.3 percent were normal weight, and 3.7 percent were underweight, according to their body mass index (BMI). Thirty-two percent of the obese subjects reported no physical activity in month prior to beginning military service, as did 18 percent of the overweight, 15 percent of normal-weight, and 11 percent of the underweight men. Sixty percent of normal-weight subjects reported regular physical activity, compared with 41 percent of obese, 56 percent of overweight, and 51 percent of underweight.
Measurements following military service revealed that the previously inactive overweight and obese subjects showed the most improvement in weight loss and body composition. Obese men lost 7.7 percent of their weight and 25 percent of their fatty mass. Underweight and normal-weight men, by contrast, gained weight, fatty mass and percentage body fat, which researchers attribute to increased calorie intake during military service (on average, 3,200 calories, 25 percent higher than the energy needs of an average population of the same age.)
“Interestingly,” said Mikkola, “although the amount of fat increased among under- and normal-weight subjects, visceral fat—the dangerous fat carried in the belly—still decreased markedly in all BMI groups.” She theorized that the regular, high-intensity physical activity levels required in military service were responsible for this beneficial change.
Numerous previous studies have shown that improvements in weight and body composition can have markedly beneficial effects on health, longevity and quality of life. Visceral fat, in particular, is a causal factor for insulin resistance, increased risk of diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Yet to be studied, according to Mikkola, is whether and how long the effects of military training persist.
The American College of Sports Medicine is the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world. More than 35,000 international, national, and regional members and certified professionals are dedicated to advancing and integrating scientific research to provide educational and practical applications of exercise science and sports medicine.