Missionary BMI Restrictions (Plus Poll)

By: hawkgrrrl
December 31, 2013

Current US averages are 27.0 for women, 28.6 for men.

There are two interesting trends in missionary work right now:  1) more missionaries of both sexes are putting in their papers to serve now that the lower age requirement enables some to go who might otherwise not go, and 2) many western countries are in the grip of an obesity epidemic, with a rising average BMI (body mass index) reported every year.

Health professionals consider BMI to be a proxy metric for health, but it is a controversial metric for several reasons: 1) taller people always have a higher BMI, 2) muscular people have a higher BMI, 3) it may not be a good indicator of cardiovascular health, and 4) it can be difficult to change.  BMIs for the US fall into these ranges:

  • <18 = underweight, likely associated with anorexia
  • 18 – 25 = normal
  • 25 – 30 = overweight
  • 30 – 35 = obese
  • 35 – 40 = obese class II
  • 40+ = obese class III

To serve a mission, a BMI of 37 or less is required, which means that in some cases prospective missionaries are turned away unless they can lose weight.  Is this fair and realistic given rising BMI trends?  Is it the best metric?

Is this a health issue?  Here’s what the church’s site says:

Regular (daily) exercise. A missionary must be able to walk an average of six miles (10 km) per day and ride a bicycle 12 miles (19 km) per day. Prospective missionaries who aren’t walking more than from the car to a class or a job will likely get sore feet and blisters when they reach the mission field. Those who are not used to riding a bicycle regularly will also become very “saddle sore” when a bike becomes their primary means of transportation. A missionary who is out of shape will be fatigued by missionary work, and a tired missionary is more open to discouragement and health concerns than a missionary who is physically fit.

Prospective missionaries can prepare for the rigors of missionary life by establishing a regular pattern of aerobic exercise—walking, running, or cycling for one hour every day. Those whose primary form of exercise is playing electronic games or text messaging will take at least four months to achieve the level of conditioning that will allow them to actually enjoy a workout.

Or are statements like these a way of “fat shaming” the obese who already bear an unfair burden in society?  I have been surprised by two things about the obesity epidemic in my time away from the US:  1) people have gotten noticeably bigger in the last 3 years while I was gone, and 2) I know many people who are obese but in great cardiovascular shape, running marathons, something I have never accomplished despite being in the “normal” BMI range.

Is it about living the word of wisdom?

Healthy eating habits. Rather than living on sugar and fat, young people should learn to enjoy meals consisting of protein and fiber, such as lean meat, yogurt, vegetables, and fruit. Also, drinking more than 12 ounces of carbonated beverage per day is too much.

The Missionary Department requires that missionaries have a body mass index no higher than 37. This is actually on the border between obesity and morbid obesity[1]. Prospective missionaries should strive to keep their weight in the normal range, thereby avoiding obesity-related health problems. Being markedly under normal weight can also have serious health consequences.

BMI is OK, but something is missing here. . . What could it be?

Can you obey the Word of Wisdom and still have a BMI over 37?  Of course you can.  The Word of Wisdom emphasizes a diet of grains.  It also doesn’t specifically prohibit or limit sugars.  Corn syrup wasn’t even a thing at the time.  It was written in the mid-1800s when 32 ounce Sprites were not available.  It’s also a dietary code based on a very active lifestyle, the type lived by farmers or day laborers who need a lot of carbs to keep going.  It doesn’t specify the right prohibitions for people in the information age who mostly sit in front of a keyboard all day.

Is it a public image issue?  Another section of the same article says:  ”Favorable first impressions are lasting.”  Missionaries are a literal representative of the church, wearing a name badge with the church’s name on it  next to their own.  Missionaries also submit a photograph with their mission papers.  When I submitted my own, they were originally rejected because the picture I used had poor lighting, and I was told that I wasn’t smiling enough.  Does the church cherry pick for image, for example, putting the most attractive missionaries in the most PR focused positions (e.g. temple square)?  Is this a form of objectification?

Is it appropriate to require prospective missionaries to meet a <37 BMI weight?

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One thing I have learned is that it doesn’t matter what people weigh, they can contribute and be valued for who they are.  People who are heavy get married, have children, are great friends, can provide service, can be tremendous innovators, can give influential speeches to large organizations, can be executives in business, and so forth.  Why not missionaries, if they are otherwise healthy?

Discuss.

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[1] Just one point of clarification on this.  The term “morbid obesity” has fallen out of use (because it is viewed as shaming).  Also, the scale has moved over time and varies by country.  For example, a BMI of 37 in many Asian countries would be considered far higher than in most western countries because their averages are much lower.

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29 Responses to Missionary BMI Restrictions (Plus Poll)

  1. Hedgehog on December 31, 2013 at 8:34 AM

    There are problems with BMI, but it can be useful as a rough guide for those preparing for a mission. A mission can be mentally and physically exhausting, so some level of fitness required at the start is a good thing. But I’d put the final say on fitness with the doctors.

    On related note, there was a local news article here this year about an obese youth who wanted to join the military. His first application was turned down because of weight and fitness, and he’d then spent a year getting into shape before being accepted. The news article was about the effort he’d put in and the success he’d achieved as a result.

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  2. RMM on December 31, 2013 at 9:12 AM

    I’m curious about all these obese people you know who are running marathons. I’ve never known anyone who was obese who was particularly active. The obese people I know are struggling with joint pain, blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, etc., and they most certainly aren’t running anywhere.

    Okay, so I just looked at hundreds of pictures of marathons, both marathons in general and marathons in the South since there’s a higher rate of obesity there. Of all the thousands of people represented in the photos, I saw two who would qualify as overweight, but not obese. There were also a handful of runners with large muscle mass who might also slip into a higher BMI rating.

    And, yes, I do support basic physical and psychiatric restrictions for missionaries.

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  3. New Iconoclast on December 31, 2013 at 9:44 AM

    If “obese” is defined as “BMI over 30,” there are plenty of them running marathons. Probably a number of them you wouldn’t think of as “overweight” if you met them on the street. Some of them are “heavy” – I know of one former missionary whom I would have described as “hefty” (she wasn’t blobby-fat, but she certainly wasn’t svelte) who just ran a marathon and by her pix hasn’t slimmed down radically since her mission.

    It’s cardiovascular condition that matters. By my scale weight this morning, my BMI is about 31. I’m 6’3″ and 255 – a tall, broad-shouldered German with a spare tire. But you wouldn’t think of me as “obese” to look at me. Not even six months ago, when I was 20 pounds heavier. But I’m in lousy shape – I drive a desk, and the heaviest thing I lift is my laptop. I doubt I could run three miles in less than 25-30 minutes, and at my post-boot camp peak I could do it in about 18.

    I think they must be finding more and more young people who can’t walk to the mailbox without wheezing. I know it’s been harder to get my own kids outside and off the video games. I did 2.5 years of college before my mission and walked all over campus; I walked my entire mission. My last city was on a little mountain and I lost about 20 pounds. That was 25 years ago, long before they invented Xbox. (Atari Pong wasn’t anything to keep you indoors for long.)

    A more realistic test would simply be something like the fitness merit badge test (scaled back a little). If a young man or woman can walk two miles in 30 minutes, or something like that, they can probably hack the physical aspect of it.

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  4. PaulM on December 31, 2013 at 10:00 AM

    Not buying the obese running marathons. I’m an active runner and can say affirmatively that an obese individual’s joints could not withstand the pounding associated with the 50-70 miles per week training regime required to prepare for a marathon. When I started running 6 years ago I weighed 220 pounds @ 5’11″. At the time my joints could barely handle a 2 mile run. I started in the fall and set a goal to run a 1/2 marathon in the spring. I had to lose nearly 40 lbs. to get to a reasonable training weight.

    Maintaining a reasonable weight is exclusively a function of self dicipline, a simple formula of calories consumed equals calories burned. If a teen lacks the self dicipline to maintain a reasonable weight then they probably lack the self dicipline to get up on time, ride a bike or walk in the rain, spend time in self-study, etc. that is not someone I would want to represent me as a missionary. Encourage those who are overweight to do what is necessary to get in shape and reapply– they will be better for it.

    Frankly, I don’t think there is enough public shaming of overweight people– or for any of a number of other behavior-based conditions. Fat is not beautiful nor is it healthy. I started running the day after retuning from a Carribean vacation and seeing my gut hanging over my swim trunks in one of the most unflattering photos I’ve ever seen (and one my wife had posted to Facebook). My wife had been gently encouraging me to lose a little weight during the preceding year but I always dismissed her suggestions as the mad ranting a of a fitness freak. It wasn’t until I was publicly shamed via Facebook that I found the motivation to make some changes in my lifestyle. I printed that picture out and hung it on my bathroom mirror as my own personal shaming. Obesity is in my genes (my mother and all six of my siblings are quite obese) and I must constantly remain vigilant to ensure it never happens to me again. I hate running, actually I hate all exercise for the sake of exercise, and I hate having to watch what I eat but I know if I stop doing either I will end up back at that unflattering photo and that is a good thing. Now I don’t take offense at all when my wife asks me if I really want that second piece of apple pie at the family Christmas gathering or if I wouldn’t rather have the mixed veggies with my steak rather than French fries.

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  5. Jack Hughes on December 31, 2013 at 10:52 AM

    This is not about discrimination, but is a matter of practicality and reducing liability. Missionaries must be able to use their feet as a primary mode of transportation. They must also be able to render service in the form of physical labor, and evacuate quickly in the event of disaster or unrest. A missionary who is physically unfit is a burden on himself, his companions, and the Church. How effective is a missionary who can’t make his appointments because he is nursing injuries, or worried about blood pressure/blood sugar/asthma/walking uphill?

    That said, I still don’t think the Church does enough for missionaries (or the general membership) to promote healthy lifestyles. There is not enough time built into standard missionary schedules for exercise. Missionaries who do experience health problems in the field don’t usually get good treatment; often, they are culturally shamed for “not praying hard enough” for the Lord to heal them, and deal with another level of humiliation if they are sent home early.

    When I ran marathons, instead of being congratulated by fellow Church members I was chastised for participating in athletic competitions on Sundays. In the modern interpretation of the Word of Wisdom, drinking a single glass of red wine (which has proven health benefits) will jeopardize one’s temple recommend, while eating an entire chocolate cake in one sitting (which has proven health risks) is perfectly acceptable. If that’s not ironic enough, try having to sit through a Word of Wisdom lecture given by a 350 lb. diabetic bishop, and keep a straight face (yes, this actually happened).

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  6. KT on December 31, 2013 at 2:31 PM

    Anybody ever heard of the clydsdale division….? The church as an org/corp can do as it pleases. I’m sure missionaries really do need to be in decent condition. Plus, 37 is pretty high- allowing for some wiggle room. I don’t doubt for a second that there are alterior motives here though – the clean shiny all American look is valued in the church, and likely seems ‘trustworthy’. It’s too bad they don’t seem to worry as much about mental health all around. I recently met a sister mish who really struggled with depression and what she called ‘seasonal affective disorder’. The mission pres didn’t credit her issues at all and told her to re-dedicate herself to the mission….

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  7. Douglas on December 31, 2013 at 7:13 PM

    Speaking as one who tipped the scales at William “Refrigerator” Perry’s declared playing weight about eight years ago, I can understand the Missionary Department’s concern about missionaries being in decent enough shape for the work. My son, who played football both prior to and after his mission, nevertheless put on the pounds to the point where his initial application was rejected. He was told to lose about 40 lbs and then he’d be cleared to go. So the kid swore off the Dr Pepper and free Round Table Pizza (he moonlighted as a delivery driver), eating only a grapefruit and eggs for breakfast, chicken breast and salad for lunch, and a moderate dinner. Plus he was a fanatic about hitting the gym. Wouldn’t you know it, he dropped the weight in but six weeks and got his mission call shortly after.
    I think BMI is a measure but is not entirely reliable. For example, being 5’10, when I weighed 327 lbs (like ‘Da Bears’ declared Fridge’s playing weight, in reality, he was about 360 if he was a ounce), I had a BMI of 46.9. Many were then shocked at my weight, saying that I looked heavy, but not THAT heavy. Well, all that working out (I was a regular at the gym), but having well-developed fork-to-mouth coordination made me a well-exercised fat guy. Now I’m at 208, and I’ve traded my 48″ trousers for 34″, can easily do fifty pullups, some with legs in the jackknife position, and can pass the Armed Forces Physical Fitness test, not only for a 54 y.o., my current age, but for a man half my age, even with a BMI of 29.8 which is bordeline “Obese”. So I don’t agree entirely with using BMI as a hard criteria, though the BMI no 37 allows for most reasonable “muscular” folks.

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  8. E on December 31, 2013 at 7:16 PM

    BMI accounts for height; it is not true that taller people have a higher BMI. A BMI of 37 is high. These are not people who are just overweight or obese, and they are not people who are just extra muscular, they are morbidly obese plus at least another 20 pounds. The church doesn’t exclude these young people because of some fat prejudice or some misunderstanding about what obesity is or how it is measured. I think church leaders do not want to call missionaries who are unlikely to be able to be successful. I think it is far better to require the prospective missionary to lose some of the weight (and they only have to get down to a BMI of 36, still morbidly obese!) prior to being called than to have to send them home or have them drag a companion down. My two cents from someone who has a lot obese patients and does a lot of missionary physicals.

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  9. rah on December 31, 2013 at 11:05 PM

    One thing I take away from the way the church writes about these things is the negative caricature they have of worldly “youth culture” and how they connect it to obesity problems. Its pretty snarky for the church – “Rather than living on fat and sugar”, “those whose primary exercise is playing electronic games or text messaging”. Really?

    Anyway, I actually do think there are good reasons to give some physical fitness requirements for prospective missionaries. It IS really physically (and emotionally) taxing work. I also think that mental health should be considered though we need to do a much better job of not stigmatizing this. Especially in a context where there are few resources or infrastructure for supporting missionaries (like 2 responsible adults for 2 hundred missionaries spread over half a country) I think it makes sense. If prospective missionaries need to take a year or even two to get to a base level of health needed that is a good thing for everybody. In this respect I actually support the church setting some objective and clear standards so everyone knows the bar. I also think there should be exceptions for when BMI or whatever criteria they use isn’t reliable. Maybe BMI isn’t the best measure but it is a start.

    However, I will take exception with some commentors who think issues of obesity are “simply about self discipline” or whatever. Lots and lots of research has shown that this is not the case for most people. Especially for those who end up obese for whatever reason the body has many, many mechanisms to fight pairing down. they are formidable, complex and subtle. This is one reason I really take issue with the snarkiness in the passages of the church material cited. They don’t show much real empathy or understanding of what most people with a BMI over 37 face in qualifying for a mission they really want to go on. We ought to be better than that.

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  10. Douglas on December 31, 2013 at 11:45 PM

    BTW, HawkChick – where did you get the pic of the “elder” wearing his tie and missionary badge? I do recall there was a calendar showing missionary ‘beefcake’ but since it’s not exactly my tastes (thank goodness!!!!) I never Googled any imagery. Now, if someone did “Cougars of BYU”, and we’re not talking FOUR-legged felines, that’d be more my tastes (provided there was no nudity, and none of the BYU coed alums were married when taking the pics). Somehow I’m dubious that ever for a charity cause (ala “Calendar Girls”), there’d be enough takers to do a calendar shoot.

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  11. Dennly on January 1, 2014 at 10:42 AM

    I think that basing physical fitness requirements on BMI is faulty. Yes, it is a good place to start. Someone who is over the 37 mark has some work to do if they want to be able to hand to physical requirements of a mission. However, assuming that a person who is thin is in good physical shape is wrong. After working in the fashion industry for many years I know that being thin means just that, thin. For me it meant I was living on diet Pepsi and an apple every day, and that was my diet when I turned my mission papers in. The first 2 hour bike ride just about killed me.

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  12. Drew on January 1, 2014 at 11:05 AM

    Although I don’t think the church has this rule to protect it’s image, I could see it being an issue in certain cases.
    Imagine a 300 pound young missionary in say, Haiti, or another malnourished country. Sending an obese missionary to a place where people are starving would be insensitive.

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  13. Rigel Hawthorne on January 1, 2014 at 11:50 AM

    I know of a young man that came home from his first year of college and tried to lose the 30 or so pounds that he needed to make the weight that was needed to serve a mission. After a semester off and being unsuccessful, he went back to college and remained at his same weight. He carried his weight such that it seemed a little harsh for him to be restricted. I heard that some sort of waiver can be obtained, but do not know what is involved for the waiver. He was not an athletic or exercise-minded person, and I think he could have used some personal training and diet counseling rather than just engaging in fast walking.

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  14. whizzbang on January 1, 2014 at 2:14 PM

    our ward had a sister serving here who had to lose weight before she came out and she ended up going home after 4 months, she just couldn’t do it anymore and I feel for her. I still keep in contact with her and she is doing better. I know a guy in our stake who has to lose weight before he goes out. The simple reality is that missions are physically demanding and this is one speaking from being on a bike for 19 months in the LA sun

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  15. Anonymous User on January 1, 2014 at 9:26 PM

    Has the Church conducted a study and found that high BMI is inversely correlated to faith or spiritual knowledge, or has the Lord spoken to the Brethren on this topic?

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  16. Laura on January 1, 2014 at 11:35 PM

    What rah said. The snark is seriously offensive.

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  17. Geoff - A on January 1, 2014 at 11:54 PM

    ON missionaries but not BMI. We just had a YSA convention on the Gold Coast of Australia. A couple of the young men left the conference partook of some alcohol and then choose someone at random attacked him and broke his jaw. The members were Polynesians, and from good families – parents temple workers and such. The national news carried the story as did all the local TV stations.

    The missionaries in our ward are both Polynesians, how do we think they are being received at the door? They are both quite slim though the slimmer one has a whole of arm tattoo, and always wears long sleeved shirt even when it is hot.

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  18. whizzbang on January 2, 2014 at 1:15 AM

    @13-”This work is rigorous. It demands strength and vitality. It demands mental sharpness and capacity. …

    “… Missionary work is not a rite of passage in the Church. It is a call extended by the President of the Church to those who are worthy and able to accomplish it. …

    “Good physical and mental health is vital. …

    “There are parents who say, ‘If only we can get Johnny on a mission, then the Lord will bless him with health.’

    “It seems not to work out that way. Rather, whatever ailment or physical or mental shortcoming a missionary has when he comes into the field only becomes aggravated under the stress of the work.

    “We simply must face up to the facts. We are spending millions of dollars on medical care and countless hours assisting those with problems that make it impossible for them to perform the work. …

    “… There are other areas where those with serious limitations may work and have a satisfying experience. And the Lord will bless them for what they are able to do. …

    “Permit me to emphasize that we need missionaries, but they must be capable of doing the work. …

    “There should be an eagerness and a desire to serve the Lord as His ambassadors to the world. And there must be health and strength, both physical and mental, for the work is demanding, the hours are long, and the stress can be heavy” (Pres. Gordon B. Hinckley “Missionary Service,” First Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, Jan. 2003, 17–18).

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  19. log on January 2, 2014 at 2:25 AM

    @16,

    Your citation provides no answer to either of the questions posed in #13.

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  20. Hedgehog on January 2, 2014 at 5:45 AM

    #12, Add in that not all missions provide opportunity to exercise. One of my brothers, a slim thing when he left to serve in Idaho, returned several sizes larger as a result of overfeeding at dinner appts. He tried to decline additional servings, request *small* dessert, to no avail. A missionary who’d worked hard to lose weight before leaving would find it very hard to keep their weight down in those circumstances.

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  21. hawkgrrrl on January 2, 2014 at 12:07 PM

    I think the point about the crotchety tone of the article on the church’s website is valid. Can we quit widening the generation gap with ridiculous swipes at video games and technology? Every person younger than 45 grew up playing video games. That’s not just a phase. Let’s pretend we can relate to the people we hope will join our church. Ugh.

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  22. Hedgehog on January 2, 2014 at 1:00 PM

    #12 now being #14, apologies to whizzbang the new #14 and drew the new #12.

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  23. whizzbang on January 2, 2014 at 11:27 PM

    @21- I am 35 and a man and I haven’t played a video game since 1991! I got BURNT out on the incessant beeping noises the games made and the utter waste of time the whole thing is!!! hahahhahha!

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  24. Observer on January 6, 2014 at 1:27 AM

    UCSD-TV has an interesting show on obesity: “The Complete Skinny on Obesity” — very interesting, with research-based observations and explanations. I completely don’t buy one of the physician’s comments about will-power, but show should be a reference point for future thoughts. I’m sure the church has thought about this carefully.

    http://www.ucsd.tv/search-details.aspx?showID=25717

    It is pointed out that at this point, obesity has become a public health problem.

    The National Geographic cover-story issue on Sugar (last summer) is also extremely enlightening.

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  25. Douglas on January 6, 2014 at 9:49 PM

    Certainly obesity is a problem for all too many Church members, including prospective missionaries. However, it seems hypocritical for me to pontificate about maintaining good physical condition even though I’ve kept the weight off for nearly seven years…would that I’d done so for the first forty-eight…ok, technically, the second part of the first forty-eight. I’d prefer to think of positive incentives and testimony rather than get on my self-righteous high horse on the subject. It’s as annoying as the “reformed” smoker that always putting out everyone else’s light.
    Methinks the best way is for people to be incentivized to get themselves into best condition as they can without fear of judgement or disapproval. They tend to give that to themselves, especially everytime they look into a full-length mirror, so why heap more scorn upon them?

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  26. Observer on January 6, 2014 at 11:49 PM

    #25
    Heaping scorn? There are lots of reasons to go on a mission, and lots of reasons not to be able to go. Health is a big part of it, so obesity is, too. Obesity, untreated mental health, spectrum disorders, any number of congenital conditions. The assumption that this is a naughty-naughty aimed at obese individuals is unfounded, and an extremely prejudiced view. It’s a health issue. How individuals deal with it, and how those around the prospective missionaries treat the missionaries is also part of it. Saints should be kind, and kind to missionaries, but not all are. Alternative service is suggested for those unable to serve a regular F-T mission.

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  27. Stephen R. Marsh on January 7, 2014 at 6:19 AM

    Mostly it is kids who were so unfit they could not tract.

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  28. Stephen R. Marsh on January 7, 2014 at 6:25 AM

    “I’m curious about all these obese people you know who are running marathons” — I have a friend who was a triathelete before he lost 300 lbs. Not terribly fast, but he finished. Just FYI.

    On the other hand, I interviewed for the USAF JAG when I was competing in a weight class sport (and qualified for nationals in it) and they told me my height/weight was too high. They were on a push against body builders at the time, someone in command didn’t like them. I wasn’t one, but got caught in that “no exceptions” period when they were trying to get rid of them.

    That said, they’ve had a real issue in a number of missions with kids who just could not tract or take the physical effort of missionary work.

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  29. Breckon on June 2, 2014 at 8:29 AM

    if you can do the 6 miles per day by walk and or 12 miles by bike I believe they should go. shire i am 34.1 BMI. Out of all the people out there, could you really think a Big boy like me can do a half marathon in 5 hours? I did not believe it either, but I did. anyone who is capable of doing so they should go on a mission. regardless of BMI. the BMI should be there as thinking your stretching the limits of what your capabilities are and need to think about losing weight. rather than a you cant go type of deal.

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