Navy eases body fat standards in effort to retain sailors

by Michael Cochrane
Posted 3/14/16, 08:45 am

Navy Petty Officer Lentoyi White, 26, feared she’d be dismissed from the service after twice failing the Navy’s body composition assessment (BCA), which measures body fat percentage. But in January, the Navy loosened its body fat restrictions for both men and women, giving White and thousands of other sailors another chance to stay in the Navy.

“I am very grateful for a second chance with this new policy,” said White, a single mother with a 5-year-old daughter. White has gone from 212 pounds to 188 and is optimistic she’ll pass this spring under the new standards.

Under the Navy’s previous standards, sailors had three chances to pass the BCA before being considered for dismissal. But now, the 2,400 sailors who failed all three will get another shot to pass the BCA under the new standards this spring.

The Navy’s old policy allowed for 22 percent body fat for males ages 17-39, and 33 percent body fat for females ages 17-39. The new standards increase the maximums to 26 percent for men and 36 percent for women, but those percentages are considered by many health experts to be in the obese category. According to the American Council on Exercise, a man with more than 25 percent body fat is considered obese. For women, 32 percent body fat counts as obese. 

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus believes the service is not lowering fitness standards but simply adjusting to the reality that Americans are getting bigger, not necessarily fatter.

 “It’s far more realistic,” Mabus said of the new body fat standard. “We were kicking more people out of the Navy for failing that, than for drugs.”

A 2014 Pentagon study found about two-thirds of Americans would not qualify for the military as a result of health problems, obesity, or failure to complete high school. And the number of sailors kicked out of the Navy for failing to meet physical standards more than doubled from 694 in 2011 to 1,536 in 2014.

With the pressure to fill military occupations such as drone operator or cyber-warfare officer, for which body weight might not matter, many are wondering whether body fat standards are even necessary.

“It’s absurd the percentage of high school teenagers who are considered to be too fat to join the military,” said former Army officer James Joyner, who teaches at the Marine Corps University. “Maybe there are two problems: One, obesity, and the other that the standards are out of date and not relevant.”

But the strongest pressure to relax the Navy’s body fat standards may stem from the desire of senior leadership to increase gender diversity in the service. Mabus has said he wants to increase the number of women in the Navy from 18 percent to 25 percent. Studies have shown body fat percentage increases tend to have a greater effect on eligibility for military service for women than for men.

“Mabus wants the Navy to have a gender ratio of 25 percent women—this is one way he is proceeding to make changes to meet that goal while denying that he is lowering standards,” Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, told me.

Donnelly noted more child care, breast-feeding accommodations, and increased maternity leave also have been proposed to improve retention and increase diversity.

“If gender quotas are a primary goal, accommodations such as this become necessary; military considerations become secondary,” she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Michael Cochrane

Michael is a retired Defense Department engineer and former Army officer who is an adjunct professor of engineering management at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. He is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Michael on Twitter @MFCochrane.

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