Annual physical fitness tests are the 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.
US Space Force leadership says the approach will prioritize the overall wellness of service members beyond a single physical assessment 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 just physical fitness, it will combine physical fitness with strong education on diet, sleep hygiene and other physiological factors to also promote social, mental and spiritual health,” wrote Patricia Mulcahy, deputy chief of space operations for the Space Force. to staff, in a memo.
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 for push-ups and sit-ups.
General fitness expectations won’t change much, said Chief Master Sgt. James Seballes, the senior enlisted leader for the Space Force Training and Readiness Command.
“We’re 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. It 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 FitRankings CEO Patrick Hitchins. “There is a certain amount of dimensionality in these tests that favors one form of activity over another.”
That was a key frustration Hitchins said he heard from military members about fitness tests. FitRankings seeks to alleviate it by converting any physical activity into a MET minute, a measure of energy expenditure.
“Guardians could engage in any type of activity,” Hitchins said. “We could turn it into this metric and then create a community engagement and culture building challenge around that data.”
Some members of the Space Force hope the Guardians will use the data to take more ownership of their overall health, said Maj. Gen. Shawn Bratton, commander of Space Training and Readiness Command, who has been testing the fitness-tracking rings.
“I have a bigger responsibility, not just once a year to do a fitness test, for example, but maybe to work out 90 minutes a week,” Bratton said. “The ring helps me keep track of that, as well as my sleep patterns.”
Bratton said leaders want to emphasize health beyond physical activity so Guardians are prepared to execute what their service requires.
“A lot of times physical exercise is used as a kind of ‘go, don’t’, either you have it or you don’t have it,” Seballes said. “I know people who can do all of their PT aspects and run a mile and a half really fast, and yet their eating habits are poor, their sleeping habits are poor. They’re 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. It doesn’t help that passing an annual physical fitness test can be linked 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 every military service to measure body composition through body fat calculations, waist-to-height ratios and 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 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. An assistant professor at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health at the University of California, San Diego, 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. “It’s an admirable thing to do. Are these technologies really the right way to do it?”
This story comes from St. Louis Public Radio and was produced by North Carolina Public Radios American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration reporting on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Public Broadcasting Corporation.