JACKSON, Miss.--When the Jackson Police Department tried to recruit new officers this spring, more than a third of the applicants were not able to pass the initial physical fitness test.

The city's police academy's initial fitness exam includes push-ups, a 1 ½ mile run, an obstacle course and a flexibility test, Deputy Police Chief Gerald Jones said.

Mississippi has the highest rate of obesity in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But Jones said it is not just that recruits are fat.

"What we are finding is a decline in overall physical strength," he said. "They can't complete the mile-and-a-half run."
Overweight and out of shape recruits for police, fire and emergency medical services are presenting increasing problems for agencies around the nation.
  • Ronald Smith, chief of the Lawton (Okla.) Police Department, said about 15% of applicants to his department this spring failed an initial agility test, including push-ups, sit-ups and a quarter-mile run. "Used to be nearly 100% passed the agility test," he said.
  • Capt. Doug Shoemaker of the Jefferson City (Mo.) Police Department said "a noticeable number of people" failed the physical exam in the two most recent tests. "I don't know that I have seen this ... as much as I have now," he said.
Last year, the Cambridge Health Alliance and researchers from Harvard University and Boston University found that 77% of fire and emergency medical technician trainees in Massachusetts were either overweight or obese.

Harvard School of Public Health professor Stefanos Kales, one of the authors of the report, said no national studies on recruits exist, but in localized studies researchers "consistently find that among police and firefighters, generally three-quarters are overweight and that includes one-third that are obese."
The picture may be worse, he said. Some departments have lowered physical strength standards to avoid discrimination lawsuits, he said.

"In combination with a less fit pool," he said, "that will end up allowing more obese recruits to successfully join these services."

Andrew Nesbit, a vocational public safety teacher at South Paulding High School in Douglasville, Ga., heard the complaint from a local fire official when he asked what he could do to turn out better recruits.

This year, Nesbit started his junior and senior students on a physical fitness plan similar to what they would face if they apply to a police or fire academy. "At first they didn't want to do it," he said. "They just don't like exercise. A lot of them don't even enjoy being outdoors." And their diet is "garbage," Nesbit added.

Part of the problem, according to Texas Christian University kinesiology professor Deborah Rhea, are cuts in school physical education programs.

A report this year from the National Association for Sport and Physical Education found that only five states require physical education for all public school grades and that more than half of the states allow physical education exemptions for students, a 61% increase since 2006.

Rhea said education leaders need to get physical education classes back in the schools. "You've got to educate them (about) why they need to be active," she said.

News release courtesy of USAToday.com


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