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April 26, 2013
By Lisa Daniel

A wide-ranging Defense Department survey released this week finds that active duty service members are healthier in most categories than their civilian counterparts and exceed most federal health objectives.

Results of the 2011 Department of Defense Health Related Behaviors Survey of Active Duty Military Personnel found that soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen beat federal goals for weight management and exercise and in the use of seat belts and motorcycle helmets.

The results indicate that the military is a national leader in healthy living habits, Dr. Warren Lockette, chief medical officer of TRICARE and deputy assistant secretary of defense for Clinical and Program Policy, said at an April 22 media roundtable discussion.

“It’s been recognized in the [U.S. Surgeon General’s] National Prevention Strategy that DOD is leading the way with several of our initiatives, like the Healthy Base Initiative, where we have not only healthy working places, but healthy living places and healthy eating places,” Lockette said.

The Healthy Base Initiative is a pilot program to begin next month. Select DOD sites and installations will commit to healthier habits, hosting activities like farmers’ markets, smoking cessation programs and exercise challenges. The initiative is part of the department’s broader Operation Live Well campaign planned in coordination with other federal healthy living programs.

Asked about weight management, 12 percent of respondents aged 20 or older reported being classified as obese. The federal goal is less than 31 percent and the current estimate of civilian obesity is 34 percent. 

Across all age groups, 54 percent of military men and 34 percent of military women were classified as overweight. However, officials explained that those numbers were inflated because the federal body mass index does not account for muscle mass. As a result, the survey assumes “considerable miscalculation of muscular individuals,” the report says.

Only 3 percent of service members reported being required to participate in a weight control program, which increasingly is determined by waist measurements rather than weight or body mass index.

Service members stay physically active, according to respondents’ self-reported behavior: 63 percent said they get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity each week, and 46 percent had at least 150 minutes of vigorous activity.  Also, 96 percent passed their most recent physical training test.

The survey indicated that 15 percent of service members have, at some point, suffered from high blood pressure and 13 percent have dealt with high cholesterol.

The respondents showed good results on seat belt use: 99 percent reported that they use seat belts regularly, beating the civilian estimate of 84 percent. Regarding motorcycle helmet usage, 94 percent of bikers reported that they regularly wear a helmet for protection.

The survey also found that most service members have a strong commitment to the military: 74 percent of respondents reported moderate to high levels of military commitment.

The Health Related Behaviors Survey is the only far-reaching, anonymous self-reporting assessment of service members’ health behaviors and is used to inform policy development and program changes. The military has collected self-reported data for the past 30 years, but military health officials said 2011 results cannot be accurately compared to previous years’ because some survey questions were changed and Coast Guard was added to the sample.

The survey was conducted from October through December of 2011, and responses were taken from 34,400 service members and 5,400 Coast Guardsmen.

Lockette said the survey gives “valid and reliable estimates of the prevalence of these behaviors” that complements armed forces’ administrative records, but can’t be duplicated by them.

“The data collected over the past 30 years of this survey have been used by military leadership at all levels to make important policy and programmatic changes,” he said. The survey “has had a substantial impact on the military health field.”

Lockette added, DOD uses the results “to ensure that we have the healthiest service members possible and also that we are being responsive to the kinds of health care needs they may have.”