The Spanish Legion declares war on obesity

La Legión, an elite army unit with a history of combat in foreign missions, is now battling love handles

Miguel González
Members of La Legión marching on Spain's National Day, October 12.
Members of La Legión marching on Spain's National Day, October 12.LUIS SEVILLANO

Spain’s La Legión is facing an internal enemy. Trained for combat, these elite soldiers are now forced to fight their own collective weight problem.

It turns out that not all legionnaires have the buff body types that fired up the social media after a British Twitter user posted pictures of marching men with the following comment: “The Spanish Foreign Legion’s uniform doesn’t have a top button, which makes them the fruitiest killers in Europe.”

In fact, some legionarios are broad in the beam and sport love handles, just like much of the Spanish population. But this look does not suit the spirit of the Legión, a unit renowned for its double-quick marching pace and brave assertions that a legionario “will never admit he’s tired until he drops dead” or that his body will be “the fastest and most resistant.”

“The Brileg [Brigada de la Legión] is immersed in a situation that requires a series of measures to deal with the weight problem of its personnel,” openly admits an internal memo sent out by headquarters and which EL PAÍS has seen.

“A high average age among Brileg personnel, together with significant physical wear and tear [...], a lack of resources and facilities providing opportunities for diverse and motivating physical training, and a general sense of conformity with regard to this weight problem, which is socially accepted to a certain degree, are all factors that have notably helped propagate this problem,” reads the memo.

The document talks about “a difficult scenario that requires a swift reaction.”

The ideal goal is “to lose between half and one kilogram a week”

This reaction has taken the shape of Plan IMC (the Spanish acronym for Body Mass Index). This plan includes psychological, physical and health initiatives, as well as deterrents for those who fail to meet established targets: think of it as going on a diet, the military way.

Part one of the plan involves raising awareness that obesity not only leads to health problems, but also undermines the unit’s outside image. “A proper appearance and physical preparation, as well as adequate health, are demanded of all military personnel and should be taken to their furthest level by the Legión. A legionario must understand that merely getting a passing grade in the General Physical Condition Test does not mean that all requirements have been fulfilled. Without a higher standard, we are condemned to losing prestige as a combat unit,” warns the report.

According to the plan, the more than 3,000 members of the Brigada de la Legión based in Viator (Almería) and Ronda (Málaga) must undergo medical tests to determine their BMI according to the World Health Organization’s parameters.

Anyone with a body mass index higher than 27 (overweight) will be included in a plan offering eating guidelines and a specific physical education program. Electrocardiograms and blood tests may be required.

A legionario “will never admit he’s tired until he drops dead”

The plan makes no distinction in terms of gender; it merely states that anyone with a BMI of 27-30 will be tested annually, those with 30-35 will go in for checks twice a year, and those with an index of over 35 will be subject to quarterly tests.

An officer will be in charge of the individualized training programs, with the ideal goal being “to lose between half and one kilogram a week.”

The plan also notes that a weight problem is not always related to a lack of professionalism, as is often surmised, but could instead be a symptom of underlying “cultural, pathological or even psychological problems that must be properly addressed.”

However, legionnaires who fail to meet targets will face consequences ranging from a mandatory nutrition program to being left out of parades and other public events. They could even get passed over for foreign missions, thus losing their eligibility for bonuses. A year without visible improvement could ultimately lead to a discharge from the army.

English version by Susana Urra.

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