Defence Forces report success in battle against fat
Spare tyres disappear from waists, muscles grow, and soldiers generally get in better shape during their period of military service.
The biggest physical changes among conscripts take place in the first two months of service - the period of basic training.
This is actually no wonder, because for many conscripts the time constitutes a massive change from their civilian lives.
"In the larger garrisons there are seven kilometres of walking simply to get to the meals", says Lieutenant-Colonel Matti Santtila, head of exercise at the Defence Forces.
With more than ten kilometres of walking each day, on top of all of the other training, the burden can prove too much for those who are not in good shape.
That is why the Defence Forces have divided soldiers into groups according to levels of fitness. However, the majority of early discharges due to poor physical condition take place in the first couple of weeks of service, before the training becomes very intense.
"The most common reasons are problems with the knees and back, which someone in his 20s could fix by upgrading his muscle strength."
If a draftee has enough motivation and is in good enough shape to make it through basic training, the average conscript will lose about half a kilogramme during the period of service.
About one kilo of fat disappears, while half a kilo of muscle tissue is added. Those who are underweight when starting service gain about two kg. of both muscle and fat.
All groups lose unhealthy waistline fat.
Ilona Mikkola, a physician who wrote her doctoral thesis on what happens to the physical condition of Finnish conscripts during their military service, says that condition generally improves, and fat disappears primarily from the waistline.
The biggest improvements are reported among those who have started their service in poor condition.
Those young people who started their military service with a body mass index of more than 30, which means that they usually weigh more than 100 kilos, complete their service eight kilos lighter.
Possibilities nevertheless exist for even better results.
Clarissa Bingham, a researcher at the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), says that conscripts continue to enjoy snacks bought at the canteen or brought from home, which account for about a third of all energy.
"Conscripts feel that at the canteen they are able to make independent choices, and they reward themselves with food", Bingham says.
Young men are used to consuming sugar already in civilian life, and the habit grows stronger under military conditions.
A completely different problem from the Defence Forces’ point of view is posed by young men who are underweight when they enter service, and who might lack the strength to carry combat gear that sometimes weighs more than 30 kilos.
Santtila says that the number of "skinny nerd boys" is on the increase.
However, the problem is marginal in comparison with the number of conscripts who are overweight when they start their training.
The Finnish Defence Forces are trying constantly to get more data on the physical impact of military training on conscripts.
More information would be needed on the effects of battle exercises.
Ideally, soldiers would have pulse monitors to determine how much strain different tasks imposes on the individual level.
"If this were done, physical training could be better tailored to the individual", Matti Santtila says.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Professional help for obesity hard to come by (22.3.2011)
A million ways to be large, or "Fat, fat, how do I know thee, let me count the ways" (27.3.2012)
Sugar seen as key factor behind obesity in Finland (28.10.2009)
Serious obesity more common in Finland than elsewhere in Nordic region (17.12.2007)