Rebuilding new Middies

Physical condition: Academy first-year class in worst shape ever, reflecting national health problem.

September 17, 2001

PHYSICAL fitness of first-year plebes entering the Naval Academy this summer was the worst in memory, the superintendent says.

Even though these 1,000 high school grads were selected for the rigors of military life, their condition reflects an overall decline in fitness of U.S. youth - and adults.

Some 14 percent of youngsters from 12 to 19 years are clinically obese, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the mid-1960s, that number was 5 percent.

Lack of physical activity is a major cause, combined with overeating. Physical education classes are increasingly squeezed out of school days, to increase academic focus or reduce costs.(Only one state, Illinois, requires daily phys ed classes through the 12th grade, but it grants lots of exemptions.)

Many fewer kids walk or ride bikes to school than in the past; distance from home and traffic dangers reinforce that decision. School lunches more resemble fast food fare as many children refuse traditional healthy food choices.

Vice Adm. John R. Ryan, the Naval Academy superintendent, blames the new plebes' lack of fitness on the sedentary "millennial computer generation." He's on target, but it's also true that the modern military itself promotes the image of computer-savvy technicians rather than physically superior warriors.

At Annapolis, plebe trainers have responded with smarter, graduated conditioning programs over the summer to bring the first-year class up to standard. It's a message of hope that should be heeded by a nation where so many people are out of shape.

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