Evaluating changes in anthropometrics and body composition in military personnel is important because these changes could affect fitness, performance, and safety17. This study determined, for the first time, the body composition and physical fitness components of marines, rescue swimmers, and divers of the Mexican Navy and demonstrated that personnel in overweight had good body composition at the expense of high BFP, adequate MMP and CFR. Furthermore, at age above 40–49 years, the military classification of overweight, cardiometabolic risk (WC > 90 cm), and BFP were good predictors for having a poor physical fitness in the Mexican Navy.
Obesity has been one of the concerns of our country and of the Mexican Navy because it is a condition associated with diabetes and cardiovascular diseases18, conditions that are generating high costs of medical attention and compromise the performance of naval personnel. The prevalence of overweight and obesity in active military service members19 and veterans20 of the United States and Mexican Navy has been estimated based on BMI only, however BMI can overestimate overweight and obesity among Armed Forces personnel, so it is important to know the body composition.
We observed that military classification based on BMI underestimates cases of overweight in the Mexican Navy; however, it is important to highlight that the analysis of body composition allowed us to identify cases of overweight with good distribution of muscle mass but high body fat percentage, which, depending on the naval operative tasks, could be considered adequate. Therefore, it is important to analyze the impact of body composition in infantry, maritime rescue operations, and diving/underwater works.
Mexican marines presented a high BFP, a characteristic that could contribute to increase the thermal isolation of the body and make metabolic adaptations to obtain energy in cases of extended semistarvation during operative activities18. In line with this idea, in infantry soldiers of the US Army, the BMI and body fat are strongly correlated (r = 0.86)21 and, in the military environment, a higher fat percentage is advantageous in a starvation situation and for sensitivity, performance, and survival in the cold18. Besides, our MR presented a low muscle mass percentage (43.4%), a condition that represents a disadvantage because it is not the most appropriate to meet the physical demands of CCRAM and because many of the operational tasks in infantry are often performed wearing combat gear and a body armor, which increase the weight of the load; thus, they require a lot of energy, adequate muscle mass, and muscle strength to accelerate the lower limbs to displace the total body weight22. It is important to consider that this group is formed by young civilians who had just recently joined the Mexican Navy and although having met the entry standards (BMI ≤ 24.9 kg/m2), their body composition (high BFP and low MMP) is not impacting negatively their physical fitness because they had the highest number of fit individuals (METs ≥ 12). However, it is important for this group to work in improving muscle quality and muscular strength in order to improve their physical performance and avoid muscle injuries; considering that increasing the weight of the load has been reported to influence negatively the physical performance of soldiers during tasks of longer and shorter duration22.
Our rescue swimmers and divers also had a high BFP, with 78 (71%) of them without metabolic risk, these facts could represent a physical advantage because a high BFP decreases the body's need to release more energy for flotation, providing a greater buoyancy, and increasing thermal resistance to cold 23, not hampering swimmers performance25, 26. Reports indicate that during a maritime rescue operation, the distances covered by the swimmers towards the victims depend on the currents, tides, waves, wind, and water temperature, representing greater energy expenditure per distance unit for them than for terrestrial locomotion23, 24. When search and rescue swimmers descend into the water, they not only have to overcome the impediments of the aquatic environment to reach the victim, but they must also carry their own weight, that of the victim, and their protective components and equipment, so they require an optimal level of muscular strength and physical fitness24.
The HRS, SRS, SDI, had the highest MMP compared to SRHS, and despite their training during 3 (SRS and HRS) to 6 months (SRHS) to strengthen the upper trunk and core muscles; only SDI had an excellent upper and central train strengthening. Hence, it is imperative that these groups work on improving muscular strength and power, particularly in their arms and trunk because these characteristics are essential components of the explosiveness needed to reach and drag their victims during rescue operations at the sea27. It is important to mention that the rescue swimmers group presented the smallest percentage of individuals with good physical fitness.
The BC and physical fitness level of divers and underwater works correspond to Navy personnel that previously had military training, but with a low MMP (45%) at the beginning of the diving course; however, at the end of it (1 year later), they were lean and fit men who gained muscle mass, had less fat mass, and reached a good physical fitness level (METs ≥ 12 and MMP 46.7–51.5%), indicating that the tactical and physical training course taught by the ESBUSREB was beneficial for those overweight young men in this group (data not shown). The benefits of BC and aerobic performance due to military training has been reported also in other military populations28. The physiological demands of swimming are quite different from those of diving, thus, body composition may differ between these two disciplines. Unfortunately, there are few studies that have analyzed the relationships between body composition and swimming and diving performance in athletes or military personnel25, 26; therefore, additional research on this field is needed to help determine optimal levels to maximize performance, prevent injuries, and ensure overall health in rescue swimmers and divers from ESBUSREB of the Mexican Navy, as well as to warrant the success of rescue missions at sea and underwater works.
It is important to emphasize that swimmers, divers, and marines that did not meet BC Mexican Navy standards at the beginning of their training courses, but were in the process of improving physical fitness and BC during the training, could be able to excel in naval-relevant tasks, which would make it inappropriate to exclude them from naval services. Additionally, it is necessary to implement tests focused on evaluating other important aspects, in addition to those already evaluated by the Mexican Navy (aerobic conditioning, muscle strength, and endurance, and body composition) such as: flexibility, muscular power and agility, balance, coordination, speed and time of reaction29; finally, it should be considered to include anthropometry measures in the Annual Medical Exam to asses body composition to correctly classify military personel with overweight and for future naval population studies30.
Finally, BFP and WC were the most important predictors for having poor physical fitness; therefore, the recommendation to improve weight and fitness in the Mexican Navy’s training programs is to increase CRF and muscle resistance-strenght, with changes in lifestyles associated with specific nutritional demands that would favor the success in maritime rescue operations, diving and underwater works, and completion of infantry tasks.
Our study has some limitations. First, the number of participants was limited because only few of them request to take the courses. Second, women could not be included because of the small number of women with operational tasks in the Mexican Navy. Third, there are few studies that have analyzed the body composition and evaluated the physical fitness of rescue swimmers and divers in military personnel, which limits the benchmarks to compare our population.
Our major strength is that it is the first study that highlights important variables, such as body composition and physical fitness components among Mexican naval personnel, providing also a reference group for further research. There is also a gap in the literature between body composition and swimming/diving performance, which opens the door for further studies.