Too fat to fight? Barely two-thirds of troops are fit

A worrying decline in standards of fitness in the Army has to led to fears that soldiers are losing their 'battle-winning edge'.
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Thousands of British troops fail to reach the Army's own basic standard of fitness, amid growing concerns that many soldiers are becoming too fat to fight. Internal documents obtained by the Independent on Sunday reveal that obesity has become "a significant problem".

A Ministry of Defence (MoD) report into fitness levels confirms that barely two-thirds of soldiers are as fit as they should be, despite commanders' insistence that fitness is vital to the "battle-winning edge needed to ensure success on operations".

Pass rates in the latest Army-wide fitness tests are way off the 90 per cent target laid down by the force's chiefs following warnings over the growing problem of obesity. Troops who fail are given the chance to retake the test: a 1.5 mile run, sit-ups and press-ups against the clock, wearing "PT kit and training shoes". But if they continue to fail after "remedial training", they can be discharged.

The MoD's internal report shows that the pass-rate is too low, with concerned commanders blaming a "dearth" of qualified fitness trainers, the high numbers of older or stood-down personnel, and those already on operations overseas. They claim the pass-rate of the 32,000-plus, who actually take the test, was far higher.

But one officer bemoans the attitude of young recruits, who are not taking responsibility for maintaining their own fitness levels. "[It] is more of a challenge with 'the youth of today'," reports an officer from 4th Division in his end-of-year report, which admitted that the test results were "generally poor". He adds: "Attitudes are more difficult to change and there are too many other distractions."

Another paper, presented to MoD chiefs two years ago, warned that "obesity is a significant problem for the armed forces" – and blamed a lack of fitness for the more than five soldiers a day diagnosed with heat illness on operations, mainly in Afghanistan.

The claim prompted top brass to establish a "weight-management policy" alongside the existing fitness programme. But the new reports reveal deep concerns about the depth of the problem – and fears that officers are not taking the fitness policies seriously enough. A summary report from the Army's London District noted "encouraging" progress on test results, but added: "Disappointingly, the most critical issue remains a low priority to the majority of unit commanders, ie participation in regular physical and/or remedial training, with time constraints and other perceived higher priorities always quoted as the reason.

"Were this issue alone addressed, not only would fitness and statistics improve, but there would be little or no need for new initiatives, such as weight management protocols."

Personal fitness tests (PFT) results are logged in two six-monthly periods – PFT1 and PFT2 – up to the end of March. Latest figures for the tests carried out across the Army reveal that the PFT2 pass rate in March 2009 was just under 70 per cent – a fall on the previous year, and still far short of the 90 per cent target.

The 5th Division return for 2008 suggested that units were scheduling tests for times when they knew they would be in pre-deployment training, so they would have to be cancelled at short notice. The report added: "It is clear that most units will never achieve above the 90 per cent pass mark ... as many units have between 15 to 20 per cent of their unit strength medically downgraded at any one time. Despite all the money that has been pumped into rehabilitation over the last decade, that figure is still rising."

The latest commentary on the test performance of 4th Division ended with the observation: "Most of these comments were mirrored in last year's report, and it is a concern that most areas are not improving – some are declining. Current operations are having a major impact across the Army, however they should not be used as an excuse for poor fitness levels."

It emerged last year that Major Brian Dupree, of the Physical Training Corps, warned the Army was in danger of losing its "warrior ethos" as soldiers skipped PT sessions and obesity in the forces increased. He said the increasing number of soldiers who were "unfit to deploy" was linked to an "indifferent" attitude to physical fitness.

A report into the progress of "physical development inspection" in 2008, obtained by the IoS under freedom of information laws, underlined the concerns of MoD chiefs at the deteriorating situation. It said: "The message ... is absolutely clear, to be 'fit to fight' requires a minimum of two to three hours of PT per week."

An updated report the following year said: "Without adequate testing is it difficult for the chain of command to obtain ground truth on the physical preparedness of their soldiers."

Commenting on the recent reports, an MoD spokesman said: "Operations demand fit, resilient soldiers and nobody deploys to Afghanistan who is not fit for their role. The levels of fitness required are high to ensure personnel are able to operate effectively in all conditions. Overall levels of personal fitness are improving in the Army, but more work is needed and is in hand to address this."

The IoS fitness challenge

So, just how hard is the Army's personal fitness test? We gathered a group of hardy spirits willing to put themselves to the test early this weekend in central London's Hyde Park. Under the direction of Dave Russell, a combat-clad ex-Marine from British Military Fitness (BMF), the volunteers tackled the three-stage fitness test. The Army demands a 2.4km run, as many press-ups as possible within two minutes, and as many sit-ups as possible in the same time.

Pass or fail varies according to the age and sex of the participants. Although none of our volunteers was obviously out of shape, their results were surprisingly varied. The scores needed to pass are in brackets after their actual results.

Wayne Hemingway, 49

Designer, founder of Red or Dead and organiser of the Vintage at Goodwood Festival

Run: 11 mins 27, Pass (sub 12.30)

Press-ups: 40, Pass (above 29)

Sit-ups: 35, Pass (above 34)

"I can't bear gyms but I wouldn't consider going running for less than 10 miles, and I've run five marathons. When I'm lighter I feel more alive and less lethargic. I've never taken drugs in my life, and the only time I've felt high is from running. Exercise helps my design thinking; when I'm doing 20-hour days it is nice to get out and go for a run – it's really refreshing. The test was surprisingly easy, especially the running. I'm surprised that as a 49-year-old, who hasn't done press-ups since school, and who doesn't go to the gym or lift weights, I can do it."

Susie Mesure, 34


Run: 14 mins 07, Fail (sub 13.30)

Press-ups: 37, Pass (above 19)

Sit-ups: 45, Fail (above 46)

"Who knew having a toddler actually did keep you fit! Seriously though, if I can pass some of it, doesn't that suggest the test should be a bit harder? Especially since these days the only exercise I manage is doing the odd yoga class and cycling to work a couple of days a week. That said, I'm not sure my press-ups would pass muster with an army sergeant – I definitely wasn't dipping all the way down to the ground. The run was difficult, as when I run I usually run quite slowly. Bit gutted to miss out on the sit-ups: if I'd realised I was only one short I could probably have just about managed another."

Dev Griffin, 25

Radio 1 presenter, weekdays 4am to 6.30am

Run: 13 mins 39, Fail (sub 10.30)

Press-ups: 49, Pass (above 44)

Sit-ups: 51, Pass (above 50)

"The run was exhausting but a lot of fun. I never do any running more intense than running for the bus, but because I did a lot of sport when I was younger, I think it counts now! I work out twice a week with my personal trainer doing kettle-bells, so the press-ups were surprisingly easy. It completely gave me respect for the level of fitness of people in the Army; you think about the focus and mental strain, but not really the fitness."

Sanna Chu, 23


Run: 17 mins 7 secs, Fail (sub 13.00)

Press-ups: 27, Pass (above 21)

Sit-ups: 11, Fail (above 50)

"I was expecting it to be so awful but it wasn't as bad as I thought. It was fun. I don't do any exercise at all normally. I guess the sit-ups were the worst part; I usually do crunches, not full sit-ups, and these were a lot harder. I felt like I was pinned to the ground or something. The run was really tiring, I was really puffed and hot. My legs didn't hurt, it was more just being out of breath. I don't think I really did the press-ups properly, so I can't really count them."