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BMI won't be easier than tape test

Aug. 26, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Sgt. Bobby Brewer, 46th Maintenance Group, and more than 20 others perform a side bridge during a physical training leader class March 30 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.
Sgt. Bobby Brewer, 46th Maintenance Group, and more than 20 others perform a side bridge during a physical training leader class March 30 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. (Samuel King Jr. / Air Force)
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Soon, failing the waist measurement component of the physical fitness test will not mean an automatic failure for airmen who pass the rest of the test.

Soon, failing the waist measurement component of the physical fitness test will not mean an automatic failure for airmen who pass the rest of the test.

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Soon, failing the waist measurement component of the physical fitness test will not mean an automatic failure for airmen who pass the rest of the test.

As of Oct. 1, airmen who do not meet the waist measurement requirements but pass the pushup, situp and run components of the PT test will be measured using the Body Mass Index taping guidance outlined in Defense Department instructions, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh wrote in an Aug. 21 message to airmen. Airmen who pass the BMI standard will pass the PT test.

The exact BMI measurements that airmen will have to meet have not yet been determined, Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Candice Ismirle said.The Defense Department rules call for a Body Mass Index of no more than 26 percent for men and 36 percent for women. The individual services can set lower maximums, but they cannot be any lower than 18 percent for men and 26 percent for women.

The change to the tape test rules may be welcome relief for airmen who have struggled to make the 35.5-inch maximum for women and the 39-inch maximum for men. But if you’re thick around the middle and think it will be easier to get a passing BMI measurement, think again. The other services use BMI and they have seen an increase in the number of service members discharged for being overweight.

The Army has seen a dramatic rise in soldiers being booted for being too fat, with discharges jumping from 168 in 2008 to 1,815 last year. Meanwhile, the Marine Corps saw a jump in Marines being kicked out from its Body Composition Program from 2010 to 2011, with 186 related discharges two years ago. Last year, however, that number fell to 132 discharges.

The Navy measures BMI as part of its physical fitness assessment, which is separate from the physical readiness test. Fewer sailors meet BMI requirements than those who pass the test itself. In 2004, 105 sailors failed the body composition assessment for every 100 who failed the physical readiness test. In 2012, there were 149 body composition failures for every 100 physical readiness failures.

Airmen who fail the tape test and the BMI measurement will fail the PT test, said Col. Dawn Keasley, chief of the Military Force Policy Division.

The waist measurement will continue to make up 20 percent of your PT test score, Keasley said in an emailed response to questions. The pushups and situps will remain 10 percent each and the 1.5-mile run will still be 60 percent of the score.

In his message, Welsh announced three other changes to the PT test.

“First, we’re realigning the fitness appeal process back to wing commanders,” he said. “Second, passing standards are being adjusted for airmen who can only test on one component of the fitness assessment, and third, we’re changing and simplifying the walk test.”

That means airmen who are injured and cannot complete the entire PT test will no longer have to meet more stringent waist measurement standards, Keasley said. Right now, men who can’t do the entire test need to be taped at 37.5 inches and women at 34 inches. Starting in October, they will need to meet the servicewide standards of 39 inches for men and 35.5 inches for women.

Under the changes outlined by Welsh, airmen will be able to appeal their fitness assessment score to their wing commanders or equivalent, Keasley said. If that doesn’t work, they can appeal to the Fitness Assessment Appeals Board and then the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records — where airmen are currently required to file an appeal.

Keasley did not have any specific information about how the walk test will be simplified for those who cannot take the run portion of the test.

Welsh said he and Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody have also heard airmen say the Air Force needs to do a better job documenting fitness performance reports, so the service is looking into the issue as part of a wider review of performance reports and the promotion system. The results are due soon.

The changes are a result of a review into the Air Force’s physical fitness program prompted in part by complaints from airmen who say they can pass the pushups, situps and run portions of the PT test but fail the tape test because they are too big. Airmen have told Air Force Times they have resorted to drastic measures, including slathering themselves in hemorrhoid cream, to meet the waist measurement requirements.

Between October 2010 and March, a total of 30,174 airmen failed the waist measurement component of the test, according to the Air Force. Of those, 5,141 airmen passed the other three parts of the PT test — 348 of whom scored well enough on the pushups, situps and run to get a passing score overall if the tape test results were not included.

Last year, Military Times set out to discover just how accurate the tape test is. Using service-specific protocols, 10 active-duty service members stationed in the Pacific Northwest were taped and then went through hydrostatic “dunk testing,” which is considered a more reliable way to determine body fat composition.

None of the tape test results matched the dunk test results — and nine of the troops’ body fat percentages were measured higher by the tape test. Four troops whose body fat percentage were measured normal or low by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be labeled “moderate risk” under Air Force standards.

The Air Force has “very few” dunk tanks, which are only found in research settings, Keasley said. Moreover, the issue at hand is not what the overall percentage of body fat is, but how much fat is in the abdominal region. That fat is associated with several diseases.

Other methods of measuring abdominal fat, such as a CAT scan or MRI, are impractical and too expensive to assess a lot of people, she said.

The BMI index offers a second chance to airmen who can’t pass the tape test; however, airmen having a hard time meeting waist measurement requirements because they are muscular won’t have an easier time meeting the BMI measurement, experts said.

While it is less prone to error than the tape test, BMIcannot tell you how much of your weight comes from muscle, said Dr. Steven Steinhubl, director of digital medicine at the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, Calif.

“For somebody who has a very strong upper body, that’s still measured as weight,” said Steinhubl, a former Air Force physician. “It’s going to reflect in the BMI.”

Although the tape test’s weakness is that it relies on measurements that need to be precise and consistent, it is still a more accurate assessment of health than BMI, he said.

“All fat tissue is not the same,” Steinhubl said. “It’s the abdominal fat that correlates best with an overall risk of cardiovascular metabolic disease. If you have a large rear, that isn’t as dangerous for you as having abdominal fat.”

That is why it is a good move for the Air Force to still have the tape test, as long as it is consistent and accurately measured, he said. But even if the tape test is right most of the time, it will still judge a few inaccurately.

“Maybe it will be right 95 percent of the time, but that means if you screen 1,000 people, 50 will be inappropriately identified,” Steinhubl said. “If you screen 10,000, that’s 500 people. If you are one of those people, that sucks.”

The Air Force did use BMI for a while, but it moved to the tape test because it is a better indicator of body fat distribution, said an Air Force dietician who was not authorized to speak on the matter.

“When I first went into the Reserves, I was considered overweight because I was 5 foot 3 [inches] and 145 pounds, so you calculate the BMI, that’s a 28, that’s considered overweight, but when they did composition, I was well within the body fat [standards],” she said. “Over the past couple of years, I’ve done a huge change to my body comp. I still weigh 140 pounds, but I’m only 18 percent body fat. So my BMI is still considered in the overweight range.”

In the Air Force, failing the PT test can end your career. If you get a referral for failing your PT test, you can’t get a perfect 5 on your enlisted performance report — making you more likely to be kicked out as part of the drawdown. Fail the PT test four times in a row, and commanders can recommend discharging you.

However, Welsh said that few airmen have been kicked out of the Air Force for failing just the waist measurement component of the PT test, despite the general perception otherwise.

“The fact is that since we started the new Fitness Program, only 76 airmen have been separated from the Air Force for failing only the AC [abdominal circumference] portion of the test multiple times,” Welsh said in his message. “That equates to 0.006 percent of the airmen tested. It’s certainly difficult for the airmen involved, but it really doesn’t happen that often.”

The Air Force was unable to say by Aug. 22 what the ranks and years of service were for those 76 airmen.

In March, a colonel with an impeccable career was relieved of command because he was taped at 41 inches, two inches over the limit. Col. Tim Bush, then commander of the 319th Air Base Wing at Grand Forks Air Base, N.D., had previous issues with the PT test due to shoulder surgery.

“I’m always confident that I can pass situps, pushups and run; I never had a problem with that, but I’ve been a big guy all my life,” Bush told Air Force Times at the time. “I’m not a string bean, but I think I’m prepared to do what my Air Force and nation ask me to do — however, in this particular situation, I did not meet the standard, and so I have to step down as the commander.”

It may be possible to fail the tape test but pass the rest of the physical fitness test, but that still means you have too much fat, so you are at risk of developing health problems down the road, said retired Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, who created the Army’s Soldier Athlete Program.

“I just observed a guy who is 30 percent body fat (not obese but overweight) who could pass the very simple Army PT test, but he gets winded doing normal functions and he was just diagnosed as a Type 2 diabetic,” Hertling said via Facebook. “So his health care will have to carry him for the rest of his life.”

That’s why it is important for the military to hold to its physical fitness standards, he said.

“And society must change or we’re going to be saddled with a huge health care issues related to fat by the year 2030,” Hertling said. “All the while journalists that cover the military are trying to determine whether tape test or a Bod Pod is more effective. As a society many people are missing the health point, which is we are too blind to understand the repercussions of people being over fat. It is especially important in the military culture where movement and physical conditioning and health are critical issues.”■


Defense Department regs lay out the basic limits: “Gender-appropriate body fat standards shall not be less than 18 percent for men and 26 percent for women, and shall not be more than 26 percent for men and 36 percent for women.” Within those confines, each of the services can set up its own rules. The maximum BMI regs for the other services:

Ages 17-20 21-27 28-39 40+
Men 20% 22% 24% 26%
Women 30% 32% 34% 36%

Ages 17-39 40+
Men 22% 23%
Women 33% 34%

Marine Corps
Ages 17-26 27-39 40-45 46+
Men 18% 19% 20% 21%
Women 26% 27% 28% 29%

Brian Everstine contributed to this report.

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