Marian Burros of the NY Times delivers a puffer on Michelle Obama's new book about the White House garden. We note a tin ear for statistics here, on obesity and the importance of healthy eating (my emphasis):
“American Grown” is filled with advice for parents, schools, cities and states on how they can help combat the obesity crisis: how to start gardens, get children to like healthy foods and find more opportunities for exercise. It also provides recipes and some startling statistics. Lt. Gen. Mark P. Hertling, now the head of Army forces in Europe, writes that in 2004 only 4 percent of men and 10.5 percent of women failed the fitness test that is required to join the military. By 2010, 47.6 percent of men and 54.6 percent of women failed the test.
That is indeed a startling statistic. In fact, I would be more than startled - I would be astonished if it were true, and the good General actualy wrote what we are reading here without any caveats and qualifiers that got lost translation. That seems like far too big a jump over a six year period unless there was a dramatic change in reporting, standards or somethig else.
Yes, obesity is up, but this study on military readiness and obesity has much different stats (p. 14 of .pdf):
Mission: Readiness used Military Entrance Processing Command (MEPCOM) weight/bodybuild data for those who were rejected for medical reasons from 1999 through 2009. ...[The data] allowed us to estimate the proportion each year of those rejected for medical reasons who were rejected for being overweight. We then compared the proportions and found that the proportion of those rejected each year increased by 69.4 percent from 12.3 percent in 1995 to 20.8 percent in 2008.
I should add that this study includes CDC data on national obesity among 18-24 year olds. That has risen by about one-third from 1998 to 2008.
Now, obesity is not the only way to fail the fitness test. But let's hear from Gen. Hertling, who rolled out new fitness standards for basic training in 2010:
As a result, it is harder for recruits to reach Army fitness standards, and more are getting injured along the way. General Hertling said that the percentage of male recruits who failed the most basic fitness test at one training center rose to more than one in five in 2006, up from just 4 percent in 2000. The percentages were higher for women.
So the fail rate moved from four percent to twenty percent at one center, presumably selected for its shock value. Could it really be that the Army had a four percent fail rate in 2000 and 2004, which then moved up to twenty percent in 2006 and forty-seven percent two years later? And yes, we are mixing "Army" and "Military", but did the fail rates in other services spike as well?
Here is Gen. Hertling in another story:
“The major problem is that they are coming to us in [worse] physical shape than their predecessors,” Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, Training and Doctrine Command’s deputy commanding general for Initial Military Training (IMT), said at the Army’s recent IMT forum held at Fort Jackson, SC. “This has nothing to do with who we are recruiting today. It’s just a reflection of what’s going on in American society right now.”
The attrition rate for new recruits in recent years has been between 10 percent and 15 percent, Hertling said, and much of it was caused by stress fractures and other serious injuries.
That does not jibe with an attrition rate rising from 4 to 47, but it is in line with the attrition rates for 1996 and 2006 shown here.
One last bit of info:
WASHINGTON, DC — Although the United States military met its fiscal year 2009 recruiting goals, 27 percent of young people in the United States are too overweight to join the armed services, a recently released report found. And nearly 15,000 potential recruits who take the military's physical fitness entrance exam fail each year because they are too heavy.
Per this press release, the 15,000 fails were offset by roughly 165,000 new recruits to all four branches of the service (70,000 to the Army).
A 47 percent fail rate is nowhere in sight by these measures. I wonder what Gen. Hertling actually wrote, what Michelle's ghostwriters actually put in the book, and how the Times reporters and editors passed this factoid along so uncritically, despite their startlement.