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Drinking, drugs, fitness: Health virtues and vices

May. 2, 2013 - 03:39PM   |  
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When it comes to health habits, the Marine Corps appears to be the 'work hard, play hard' service while the Air Force seems to be staffed by straight arrows, a new military survey shows.

When it comes to health habits, the Marine Corps appears to be the 'work hard, play hard' service while the Air Force seems to be staffed by straight arrows, a new military survey shows.

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When it comes to health habits, the Marine Corps appears to be the “work hard, play hard” service while the Air Force seems to be staffed by straight arrows, a new military survey shows.

Released on April 22, the 2011 Health Related Behaviors Survey of nearly 40,000 active-duty troops shows the Marine Corps has the fewest troops considered obese by body mass index measures, and the service is tied with the Army when it comes to putting in the most time at the gym.

But along with these positive habits, Marines also get drunk more than members of other services, with more than half saying they engaged in binge drinking — consuming five or more drinks for men or four or more for women in one sitting — at least once in the 30 days before taking the survey.

Marines also reported needing the most number of drinks — nearly seven — to feel intoxicated, and they also imbibe energy drinks combined with alcohol more than other troops. Thirty-one percent of Marines said they smoke and 32 percent said they chew or dip tobacco, also the highest percentage of all services.

At the other end of the spectrum lies the Air Force. Airmen beat out members of other services in seat belt and motorcycle helmet use, twice-daily teeth brushing, and multivitamin and condom use.

The Air Force also is second only to the Marine Corps in people of healthy weight, and has the lowest number of people reporting binge drinking, getting drunk and abusing prescription drugs.

An improving picture

“Overall, the force was doing well in areas of fitness, exercise and safety behaviors,” the report noted. But “areas in need of improvement” included alcohol and tobacco use, prescription drug use, combat-related stressors and sexual assault, according to the assessment.

The 2011 Department of Defense Survey of Health-Related Behaviors Among Active-Duty Military Personnel was conducted electronically in 2011, receiving responses from 39,877 personnel, including Coast Guard members.

The survey generally indicated that active-duty troops are engaging in harmful behaviors less than they did in 2008, the last time the survey was conducted. Overall, binge drinking, smoking, illegal drug use and suicide attempts were shown to be on the decline.

But troops continue to indicate high rates of stress, with those who engaged in heavy combat reporting the highest levels of stress and related vices such as drinking and prescription drug use.

“These surveys allow us to further focus programs we have such as Operation Live Well, a departmentwide education outreach for behavioral change, to go after behaviors and ameliorate them, particularly those that are detrimental to performance or readiness of the force,” said Dr. Warren Lockette, Tricare’s chief medical officer.

The survey showed the Army had the highest percentage of obese troops: 16 percent, compared with 12.4 percent of troops overall. Soldiers also had more prescriptions for medication than other troops and incidents of prescription drug misuse, although the percentage of troops reporting any prescription drug abuse was just 1.3 percent.

Sailors have the unique distinction of flossing more than their peers in the other branches: 33 percent do it every day.

But the Navy also ranked highest in thinking that that seeking mental health counseling would hurt their careers. According to the survey, 42 percent of sailors thought it would damage their careers and 24 percent said it actually did.

Defense officials said they believed the data on mental health, which appear alarming in light of the fact that the services have all embarked on campaigns to reduce the stigma of seeking mental health care, are not reflective of current policies.

“Stigma is something that still exists in the culture even though there have been multiple PR campaigns to combat it. ... A policy change in that regard went into effect in 2010 and 2011 to try to reduce barriers for service members to seek care,” said John Davidson, a policy analyst with DoD’s Force Health Protection and Readiness office.■

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