Deployment Has Mixed Effects on Soldiers’ Fitness


INDIANAPOLIS -- The effects of deployment for Army personnel are not as great as expected, according to a study released in the September issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, which is the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

Physical training is part of the job of U.S. Army soldiers, but access to physical fitness facilities and training time may be limited during combat deployments. While limited training may result in a loss of fitness, the physical requirements of war fighting may offset some of the negative effects, the study found.

In the context of the ongoing military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, no previous study had assessed the effects of prolonged military deployment on body composition, physical fitness, and physical performance.

Researcher Marilyn Sharp, M.S., and her team from the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine measured physical fitness levels in 110 infantry soldiers before and after a nine-month assignment to Afghanistan. Measurements included aerobic fitness, muscle strength, muscle power and body composition.

Soldiers maintained strength and lower body power during deployment. They experienced small but statistically significant decreases of about 5 percent in both aerobic fitness and upper body power. Changes in body composition were both positive (a 2 percent decrease in weight) and negative (a 4 percent decrease in lean body mass and an 8 percent increase in fat mass).

“These findings are encouraging in that the body composition and physical performance changes were not large,” Sharp says. “However, it would be wise to track soldiers during longer deployments to ensure that no health or performance concerns arise.”

Reduced physical training time may be a contributing factor to the decline in aerobic fitness. For average healthy adults, ACSM and the American Heart Association recommend that healthy adults exercise for at least 30 minutes, five days per week, at a moderate intensity, or 20 minutes, three days per week, at a vigorous intensity. Prior to deployment, a majority of soldiers were meeting the recommendation—80 percent of soldiers exercised three or more days per week. Though most soldiers reported having access to some form of aerobic and strength training equipment, only 35 percent exercised during deployment.

It is likely that the physical demands of military tasks helped soldiers maintain physical fitness, even in the face of reduced training time.

“The good news is that the negative effects of this deployment were minor and could be quickly ameliorated upon return with a directed physical training program,” Sharp says.

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