Dealing with Weight Gain after Your Military Separation
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By Dr. Jessica Sapp, Associate Professor, School of Health Sciences and Deborah Fisher, Master of Public Health Graduate Student, American Military University
Are you a veteran who is struggling with your weight? If so, you are not alone.
If you have spent years following a military work schedule, deployments and early morning group physical exercises, a relaxed lifestyle can be a welcome change. The transition period from active duty to civilian life can be both exciting and stressful.
However, one change that isn’t wanted is a substantial weight gain, which many veterans experience following their separation from service. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), 78% of veterans are either overweight or obese.
Veterans Often Gain Weight Due to Release from Military Fitness Standards
While on active duty, servicemembers are required to comply with Department of Defense body composition standards and physical fitness standards for retention and promotion. Without those stringent standards after separation, there is often a drastic reduction in physical activity. Many veterans see an accelerated weight gain immediately.
One study found that in the six years following discharge from active duty, veterans gained an average of 12.5 pounds. In another study, the Body Mass Index (BMI) of veterans was compared with non-veterans (same age and gender). That study found that veterans were more likely to be overweight than their civilian counterparts.
Being Overweight Leads to Chronic Illnesses
Having to shop for larger clothing isn’t the only result of excess weight gain after military service. According to The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, being overweight or obese has serious health implications and increases your chance of developing chronic illnesses such as:
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Sleep apnea
- Heart disease
- Fatty liver disease
The Cleveland Clinic warns, “Obesity causes Americans to lose more years of life than any other cause, including smoking cigarettes.”
Healthy Weight Loss Tips
If you are one of the many veterans struggling with your weight, a weight-loss journey might feel daunting. Following these tips may help you reach a healthy weight:
- Set goals: Focus your goals on short-term dietary and physical activity changes rather than on a number on your scale. Try using SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) goals to achieve your desired weight loss. When you reach an exercise goal, increase the distance, difficulty or time for your next goal. Here are examples of SMART goals:
- Generic Goal: I will walk more. SMART Goal: I will walk for 30 minutes a day, five days a week for one month.
- Generic Goal: I will eat healthier. SMART Goal: I will eat at least five servings of vegetables a day for one month.
- Reward yourself for obtaining health goals: Pick a reward to give yourself each time you reach your short-term goal. Try not to use food as a reward.
Instead, reward yourself by purchasing a new article of clothing, going to a movie or taking an hour to pamper yourself. Frequent rewards for reaching smaller goals will keep you motivated to reach your long-term goals.
- Record your successes: A great motivational tool is to look back to where you began. Take a “before” picture and additional pictures every month so you can see your progress. If pictures aren’t your thing, try keeping a journal or chart of your weekly weigh-ins.
- Get a battle (of the bulge) buddy: Having a friend as a weight-loss buddy can be a great motivator and help you refrain from a binge-eating session. Having a workout partner also increases your accountability, so you are less likely to cancel when your partner is depending on you.
- Find VA resources: The VA has weight management programs like MOVE! This program includes the MOVE! Coach mobile app and group sessions.
- Don’t give up: You didn’t put the weight on overnight, so don’t expect it to disappear overnight. It is extremely important to avoid fad diets. A healthy weight loss is about one to two pounds per week.
Learning to make healthy behavioral changes will not only help you lose weight, but will also increase your overall health. You will see improvements in your physical endurance, heart rate, blood pressure, energy and mood. Making positive lifestyle changes will enhance your quality of life.
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About the Authors
Dr. Jessica Sapp is an associate professor in the School of Health Sciences at APUS. She has over 13 years of experience in public health, working in various environments including government, hospitals, health insurance, community, international, corporate and academia. Jessica earned her D.P.H. in health policy and management at Georgia Southern University and an M.P.H. in health promotion, education and behavior at the University of South Carolina. She also has a B.S. in health science education from the University of Florida.
Deborah Fisher is a veteran of the United States Air Force, where she served for 12 years. She completed her bachelor’s in Sports and Health Sciences and now lives with her family in Virginia while she actively pursues her Master of Public Health degree.