Space Force’s new fitness standards don’t prevent old problems

Annual physical fitness tests have become a cornerstone of military life. Each service has its own version of the annual assessment required by the Department of Defense.

But the country’s newest military branch is abandoning that model.

Members of the Space Force, called Guardians, will not have an annual test. Instead, they’ll get smart rings or other wearable fitness devices to track their physical activity throughout the year. The devices will also be programmed to provide information on mental health, balanced eating and sleeping.

Space Force leadership says the approach will prioritize the overall well-being of service members beyond a single physical evaluation each year. The annual tests have triggered symptoms of eating disorders and other unhealthy behaviors in some members of the military.

“This program will promote not only physical fitness; will combine physical conditioning with strong education on diet, sleep hygiene and other physiological factors to promote social, mental and spiritual health as well,” Patricia Mulcahy, deputy chief of space operations for Space Force personnel, said in a 16-day memo. of March.

The change is still taking shape and won’t be fully implemented until 2023. Until then, Guardians must still complete one more Air Force fitness test: a 1.5-mile timed run and one minute of push-ups and sit-ups.

General fitness expectations won’t change much, said Chief Master Sgt. James Seballes, senior noncommissioned officer leader of the Space Force Training and Readiness Command.

“We are still using the Air Force PT standards. The difference is in our approach,” he said.

The Space Force has been testing Garmin watches and Oura rings for its program. He also plans a digital community where Guardians can view data from their own fitness trackers and compare it to their peers.

Austin-based FitRankings is building that online platform, which will allow tutors to get credit for activities they normally do, rather than testing them on specific exercises during the annual test.

“Maybe you’re not good at running, maybe you’re not good at pull-ups,” said Patrick Hitchens, CEO of FitRankings. “There is a certain amount of dimensionality in these tests that favors one form of activity over another.”

That was a key frustration Hitchens said he heard from military members about physical fitness tests. FitRankings seeks to alleviate it by converting any physical activity into a MET minute, a measure of energy expenditure.

“The guardians could do any kind of activity.” Hitchens said. “We could turn it into this metric and then create an engaging challenge for the culture building community around that data.”

Some in the Space Force hope the Guardians will use the data to take more ownership of their overall health, said Shawn Bratton, commander of the Space Force’s training and readiness command. He is one of the people who has been testing fitness tracking rings.

“I have a bigger responsibility, not just once a year to do a fitness test, for example, but maybe to exercise 90 minutes a week,” Bratton said. “The ring helps me keep track of that, as well as my sleep patterns.”

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US Air Force

A member of the 18th Air Force Component Maintenance Squadron wears a Garmin watch and Oura ring as part of a 2021 study. The Space Force is evaluating wearable devices from both manufacturers to monitor troop health instead of a annual physical fitness test.

Bratton said leaders want to emphasize health beyond physical activity so Guardians are prepared to execute what their service requires. Saballes echoes this.

“A lot of times physical exercise is used as a kind of ‘go, no go,’ either you have it or you don’t have it,” he said. “I know people who can do all their PT aspects and run a mile and a half really fast and yet their eating habits are bad, their sleeping habits are bad. They are not healthy”.

The traditional style of fitness testing has also pushed some militaries into dangerous decisions. Researchers have found that some members of the military exhibit eating disorders in the months leading up to their physical fitness tests. Other studies suggest that members of the military are generally at higher risk for symptoms of eating disorders compared to their civilian counterparts.

“This increased focus on fitness or weight and shape over a period of time may be associated with increases in body dissatisfaction,” said Lindsay Bodell, an assistant professor of psychology at Western University in Ontario. “People may be more aware of their bodies and their performance at that time.”

Bodell, whose research focuses on the causes of eating disorders, stressed the need for more study before she and other researchers can say with confidence that the two are related. Still, it doesn’t help that passing an annual physical fitness test can be tied to career advancement and other military opportunities, she said.

“Having these consequences of not meeting the standard can lead people to engage in pretty extreme behavior to meet those standards,” he said.

But Bodell added that fitness trackers won’t necessarily solve the problem. The Pentagon still requires each military service to measure body composition through body fat calculations, waist and height ratios or other methods.

“If the emphasis continues to be on specific weight standards or weight regulation, we may still end up having similar consequences,” Bodell said, noting that many studies have found a connection between the use of physical activity monitors and symptoms of stroke. eating disorder.

“These types of constant fitness monitoring and tracking could contribute to pressures to mold one’s body to unrealistic ideals,” he said.

Elizabeth Eikey’s research touches on that theme. As an assistant professor at the University of San Diego School of Public Health and Design Lab, she studies how technology, such as fitness trackers and apps, affects mental health and well-being.

“For a long time, the idea was more commitment to these tools: the more consistent you are, the longer you use them, the healthier you are,” Eikey said. “But what we’re finding is that that’s not necessarily true.”

Having more data about your health or fitness can undermine the kind of self-reflection that leads to healthier lifestyles, Eikey said, especially with larger goals.

However, that doesn’t mean he’s against the Space Force reevaluating how it measures fitness.

“Challenging the kinds of standards around fitness is very important,” Eikey said. “That is an admirable thing to do. Are these technologies really the right way to do it?”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on military life and American veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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