The Sunday Times ran a story yesterday (£-paywalled) in which it revealed that over the past three years, 22000 British soldiers have been found to be overweight and therefore potentially at risk of health problems.  Over a similar period, some 34000 or so have failed their ‘Personal Fitness Assessment’ (PFA).  Shock horror!

At the risk of appearing complacent, this is probably not as serious a problem as it appears at first glance.  It isn’t a good thing that soldiers become unfit and overweight but the reasons that this happens are understood and, in most cases it can be and is remedied.

Think about this: for the past eleven years the British Army has seen significant numbers of soldiers deployed on operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Whilst you’re in places like this, opportunities for good quality physical training can be very limited.  It certainly happens in the big bases, like Basra Airport in Iraq or Camp Bastion in Afghanistan, but elsewhere it simply may not be possible to follow a worthwhile training program.  Soldiers who are out patrolling and doing other tough physical tasks will maintain some fitness, although it’s unlikely to be the specific aerobic and local muscular endurance fitness tested by the PFA, but others who are desk- or base bound won’t.  They probably won’t get fat – when I returned for mid-tour R and R from Iraq in 2003 I found I’d lost nearly two stone and none of my civilian clothes fitted me – but they won’t be fit either.

At the end of a 6-month tour, soldiers normally get a period of ‘Post Operational Tour Leave’ (POTL) which often lasts for 4-6 weeks.  During this period, they will usually have a lot of accumulated pay and, almost inevitably I would suggest, a proportion of that will normally be spent on ‘high living’.  This is particularly the case as most deployments these days are ‘dry’ (or as good as).

When POTL finishes, it’s back to work. I’ll bet that the great majority of Commanding Officers hold a PFA for their soldiers as soon as it can be organised, and rightly so: it’s a way of gauging the state of the unit, apart from anything else.  In my experience, most military personnel I know will try to get themselves back into shape once they return from ops but, inevitably some either won’t, or won’t do enough, and after 6 months away and a month or so eating and drinking their fill, they will fail the assessment.

So what happens then?  Commanding Officers; Company, Battery and Squadron Commanders; Platoon and Troop Commanders will all get to work on physical training programmes for their soldiers, and as time goes by, they will get them back into shape, ably assisted by the army’s highly professional physical training instructors (and these men and women are really good at what they do).

It would be idle to deny that some soldiers, and some officers too, neglect their physical fitness and regularly fall below the standard.  The systems exist – and are used – to discharge them from the army and ultimately that’s tough shit.  But for the majority, self motivation, support and training will ensure that they are physically fit before they deploy on operations.  It can be mildly annoying as a commander to have to deal with the unfit minority but that is sometimes what the job entails.

So, as I said at the start of this post, we shouldn’t be complacent but the figures that the Sunday Times dug out of the system aren’t indicative of a catastrophic problem.  My own recommendation is that the army should buy a good fitness book for every serving soldier.

How about this one?


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