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Best Defense

How individual soldier fitness changed on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan

By Jim Gourley Best Defense physical fitness columnist Service members who’ve been to both theaters have long believed that you got fatter in Iraq and leaner in Afghanistan. The theory being that you split your time in Iraq between sitting in a moving vehicle, sitting around a FOB, or hitting the gym before sitting down ...

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By Jim Gourley

Best Defense physical fitness columnist

Service members who’ve been to both theaters have long believed that you got fatter in Iraq and leaner in Afghanistan. The theory being that you split your time in Iraq between sitting in a moving vehicle, sitting around a FOB, or hitting the gym before sitting down in the KBR-supplied chow hall. In Afghanistan, you were more likely to be so busy walking patrols, running into ambushes, or standing guard in your makeshift outpost that you forgot to sit and eat your MRE. Scientific research on deployed combat troops between 2006 and 2012 appears to refute that notion. However, the findings of how soldier fitness changed may indicate what military members believe constitutes “fitness,” and reflect the need to address biases in training.

The U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine conducted two studies of combat arms soldiers deployed for nine and thirteen months to Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively. British researchers from the Institute of Naval Medicine and the Royal Centre for Defence Medicine conducted related surveys of Royal Marines during a six-month Afghanistan deployment. Their findings suggest that the operational theater has tangible influence on the strength and endurance levels of deployed troops, but the nature of that influence depends greatly on service culture and individual fitness habits.

The Army’s Afghanistan study (pdf) did the most to validate service members’ suspicions. In a population of 110 soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division, average body weight decreased from 183 to 180 pounds. However, the loss all came from fat-free mass. In fact, soldiers gained an average of 2.6 pounds of fat. Fitness tests showed reductions in aerobic fitness and upper body strength, but lifting and lower body strength remained unaffected. This would be consistent with the greater emphasis on patrolling with a combat load and physical labor. But in that context, it’s peculiar that soldiers’ average bone mineral density appeared to decrease, though the tests were inconclusive.

Changes in soldier fitness in Iraq were dramatically different. There was a much more consistent tendency toward particular metrics. Soldiers there did get heavier, but the five-pound increase is deceiving. Surprisingly, their 2.4 extra pounds of fat was less than what troops in Afghanistan put on. What those who deployed to Iraq really gained was almost four pounds of muscle. So while troops in Iraq experienced a body fat increase of 4.2-percent, the Afghan cohort actually became “fatter” by 10.2-percent due to the loss of muscle.

There was one performance metric that diminished much more among those who deployed to Iraq than Afghanistan. Measures of oxygen uptake (VO2max) in both groups was very similar before deployment, but the Iraq group’s loss was nearly three times greater than the Afghan subjects. The imbalance in how strength and endurance changed in both populations is most likely explained by the combat experience. Running is a difficult proposition for most soldiers in the combat zone. It’s miserable to run on a FOB in summer, so most people don’t do it. Troops in Iraq hit the weight room much more often, whereas those in Afghanistan indicated that they didn’t lift as much. It’s possible they were more exhausted from patrolling and more frequent contact with the enemy.

Service culture may also play a role in it. In the British study, Royal Marines were found to lose more fat than muscle. While total body weight loss was negligible, body fat percentage decreased by 1-percent, which was considered significant. Measures of physical strength weren’t comparable to the American studies, though subjects actually increased their average scores on press-ups and sit-ups by the end of the deployment. More related to the American studies, the subjects showed a negligible loss in aerobic endurance as measured by VO2.

I don’t have scientific evidence to prove it, but I’d hazard a few conclusions from these reports. In sum, it looks like the Brits did something differently and potentially better than us in terms of maintaining physical fitness in-country. Maybe it’s a function of different missions and how much time different units had to dedicate to exercise, but dismissing the idea on those grounds is lazy. Considering all the things that we know are wrong with physical fitness in the armed forces, we should be open to the possibility that someone has a better idea of how to do it.

Regarding the difference between the Afghan and Iraq experiences, I think it’s a function of being in two radically different wars. Units typically don’t conduct organized physical training in theater because of the operational tempo. Troops are left to exercise on their own. I always felt that, outside of Baghdad, Iraq gave troops plenty of down time. There was a lot of make-work and boredom. It was sort of like prison for a lot of people; nothing to do between your shifts or patrols except lift weights and play Grand Theft Auto. Afghanistan seemed a lot more dynamic all over the place. You were much more tired when you weren’t on duty and your rest was interrupted more frequently.

Most importantly, the disparity between perceptions and metrics of “fitness” suggest flaws in service culture attitudes. Troops packed on muscle in the gym, but still thought they were “fatter” coming out. That’s because the military’s gold standard for fitness is how fast you can run two miles. We still insist on this even though we’ve been telling ourselves for years that no one has yet to run two miles in a firefight. That represents a real disconnect that prevents data from becoming information. The data from these studies is invaluable, but only if military leaders give them meaning. That meaning comes from answering some important questions. Who had the “better” fitness outcomes returning from combat? Were the degradations in soldier fitness within acceptable parameters? Deciding how close this data gets to the threshold of acceptability would force us to determine exactly what our definition of combat fitness is and where the standard exists. I’ve been reading papers on this subject for a while now, and I don’t think the institutions responsible for developing these concepts are anywhere close to a good definition. The consequence is that the data gets stuck at the research centers and no education flows down to the operational community, leaving units to conduct physical training without a clear idea of what we’re training for.

Jim Gourley is a former military intelligence officer. He now works as an author and journalist covering military affairs and sports science. His newest book, about ultra-endurance triathlon, is in stores now. His Twitter is @jim_gourley

U.S. Army Flickr

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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