What is a more pervasive threat to national security than al-Qaida? Military leaders say it is the double cheeseburger and large fries, and the sedentary lifestyle of many American young people.
In a recent report called "Too Fat to Fight," the non-partisan group Mission: Readiness, made up of senior retired military officers, said 27 percent of Americans 17 to 24 years old aren't fit enough to serve in the military. The number of inductees who flunk their physicals has jumped nearly 70 percent since 1995.
"Obesity rates threaten the overall health of America and the future strength of our military," Gens. John Shalikashvili and Hugh Shelton, two former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in a recent commentary in the Washington Post.
Lexington fitness trainer Steve Mansfield is helping the Marine Corps fight back.
Mansfield, who owns Legion Training Center off Reynolds Road, has begun teaching Marine recruiters across the region a no-frills fitness program that they can use to help get recruits in shape. Many recruits have about six months between when they enlist and when they report for duty.
Since April, two classes of Marine recruiters have graduated from Mansfield's Legion Warrior PT program. It is an intense three days of classroom instruction and workouts with dozens of strength and endurance exercises that use body weight for resistance.
Mansfield hopes that if the recruiters find the program useful, the Marines will hire him to expand it nationally. So far, the results are promising, said Sgt. John Jackson, public affairs officer for the 4th Marine Corps District, based in Louisville.
"They were very positive about it," Jackson said of recruiters who have completed the program. "It was very demanding."
It certainly was. I spent a couple of hours watching Mansfield and his instructors put more than a dozen fit Marine recruiters through a workout that included every variation of push-up, sit-up, jumping jack, squat and kicking exercise you can imagine — and then some.
"They're going to be able to take kids they couldn't take before," Mansfield said as he walked around the gym critiquing the recruiters' workouts. "They'll get more kids in good enough shape to serve and, if they're in shape, get them better able to excel at basic training."
Mansfield, 52, never served in the military. Until the Bath County native opened his gym nearly three years ago, he said, he worked in business and technology. In his spare time, though, his passion was martial arts, rock climbing, mountaineering and other endurance sports. "I finally decided to make my hobby my career," he said.
Unlike many sport-specific exercise programs, Mansfield's workouts are geared toward creating overall, high-endurance fitness. Legion Warrior PT is a combination of military and law enforcement exercise techniques, plus those used in extreme sports.
The idea is to teach recruiters a variety of exercises to help every kind of recruit — and to keep workouts interesting. The exercises require little or no special equipment. Mansfield teaches similar workouts to civilian clients at his gym.
"There's no new exercise under the sun," he said. "It's finding the exercises that work for you and doing them with the intensity needed to get fit. You can't do the same thing every day, or it will get stale, and then you won't do it."
The program also includes four hours of nutrition instruction. "For recruits, nutrition is half the battle," Mansfield said.
"It will definitely help the people we recruit get in shape for boot camp," said Sgt. David Harvey, a Marine recruiter based in Cincinnati.
Many high school athletes enlist in the Marines, but even they often don't have the stamina and endurance needed to succeed. "We also get a lot of smart (video) gamers who can't do a pull-up," said Sgt. Robert Pugh, a recruiter in Bowling Green.
"It's one of the most physically challenging things I've ever done," Staff Sgt. Brandon Rosser, a Louisville-based recruiter, said as he caught his breath during a break. He says the program will help him help Marine recruits. "I never knew there were so many versions of push-ups."