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The military and human performance

The military and human performance

In the last several years, the men and women of our military services are never far from any of our minds.  While most of us are more likely to think of sports medicine as relating to athletic performance or normal exericse, many don't realize that our field has been linked to military service for many, many years.  Ask many veterans what the initials "PT" mean to them and in most cases they will tell you 'physical training' (and maybe with a sneer in place).   One of the founding fathers of sports medicine, TK Cureton at the University of Illinois was heavily involved in designing fitness programs and even obstacle courses for the military during World War II (here is a great article on TK Cureton and the important role he played in physical fitness in the mid-20th century). These programs were put in place to help our soldiers be able to fight efficiently and effectively.

The emphasis on physical fitness in the military didn't stop with World War II - in fact the concern that our military-aged youth be physically fit and be able to fight was one of the reasons for the alarm over a study by Kraus-Hirschland in 1954 that showed that 60% of American children failed at least one test of muscular strength and flexibility as compared to less than 9% of European children.  President Eisenhower held a White House conference in 1956 to consider these findings and as one result, the President's Council on Yourth Fitness was formed (later renamed as the President's Council on Physical Fitness).  This national sense of urgency in regards to fitness and our children didn't stop with Eisenhower - President Kennedy was a huge advocate of physical fitness and even wrote two articles for Sports Illustrated that dealt with this theme.  In a quote prescient for it's time, President Kennedy in an article for Sports Illustrated entitled the "Soft American" even observed  "We are under-exercised as a nation; we look instead of play; we ride instead of walk".  Interesting that what  was true over 50 years ago is still true today.

It is also true that our fighting men and women are some of the best trained and physically capable humans around.  Recent military operations (especially on May 1, 2011) in particular continue to show the physical fitness and resilence that characterize our modern warriors.  And our modern military forces are not resting there.  Most military branches have service institutes dedicated to human performance like the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.  Even the Department of Defense understands the importance of physical fitness in our soldiers and awards grants every year to researchers in Exercise Science to work on improving the human performance of our military service personnel.

But in spite of this preparedness, there are dark clouds looming ahead, very similar to what we saw in 1954....our youth are troubingly out of shape.  From the lack of physical education in schools to the huge problem of obesity in our children, these issues all point to youth that will be ineligible to serve in our military services.  One leading military commander - with experience in most of the combat zones of the world over the last 10 years - told me that his biggest concern was not who we were fighting or what they might try to do to us.  His biggest concern was the general lack of health in our youth and the resulting impact on the ability of our all-volunteer military to maintain fighting standards.  He noted that over 25% of recruits are unable to be inducted because they don't meet basic physical health standards.  As a friend of mine says: "Ouch!".

We have to remember that in 1954, the same types of concerns spurred nationwide interest in physical fitness and a resultant focus on exercise and wellness that bloomed in the 1950's and 60's.  I think that while we should congratulate and praise our military personnel, isn't it time that we became concerned again for the wellness of our youth and by extension, the future welfare of our military forces?

Until next week, be active and healthy....(and thank a Veteran).

(*Kudos to Len Kravitz - University of New Mexico - and Lance Dalleck whose article "The History of Fitness" inspired some of the thoughts and sources in this blog especially those of President Kennedy.)

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