Eric Schmid/St. Louis Public Radio
Annual physical fitness tests are the cornerstone of military life. Each service has its own vision of the annual evaluation required by the Ministry of Defence.
But the newest military branch of the country is abandoning this model.
Space Force members, called Guardians, will not have an annual test. Instead, they will receive smart rings or other wearable fitness devices to track their physical activity throughout the year. The devices will also be programmed to give information on mental health, balanced diet and sleep.
US Space Force leadership says the approach will prioritize the general well-being of service members beyond a single physical assessment each year. Annual testing has spurred symptoms of eating disorders and other unhealthy behaviors in some service members.
“This program will not only promote physical fitness; it will combine physical fitness with solid education on diet, sleep hygiene and other physiological factors to also promote social, mental and spiritual health,” Patricia wrote. Mulcahy, Deputy Chief of Space Operations for the Space Force. for the staff, in a note.
The change is still taking shape and won’t be fully implemented until 2023. Until then, the Guardians have yet to complete another Air Force fitness test – a 1.5 mile, one-minute timed run. push-ups and sit-ups.
Overall fitness expectations won’t change much, the chief master sergeant said. James Seballes, the senior enlisted chief for the Force’s Space Training and Readiness Command.
“We still use Air Force PT standards. The difference is in our approach,” he said.
The Space Force tested Garmin watches and Oura rings for its program. It also provides a digital community where Guardians can view data from their own fitness trackers and compare it to their peers.
Austin-based FitRankings is building the online platform, which will allow Guardians to get credit for activities they normally do, rather than being graded on specific exercises during the annual test.
“Maybe you’re not good at running, maybe you’re not good at pull-ups,” said Patrick Hitchins, CEO of FitRankings. “There is a certain dimensionality in these tests that favors one form of activity over another.”
It was a key frustration Hitchins said he heard from the military about physical fitness testing. FitRankings seeks to mitigate this by converting all physical activity into one minute MET, a measure of energy expenditure.
“Guardians could do any type of activity,” Hitchins said. “We could convert it to this metric and then create a culture building and community engagement challenge around that data.”
Some Space Force members expect Guardians to use the data to take greater ownership of their overall health, said Maj. Gen. Shawn Bratton, commander of Space Training and Readiness Command, which has been testing tracking rings. of physical condition.
Demond McGhee/US Air Force
“I have an increased responsibility, not just once a year to take 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.”
Bratton said executives want to focus on health beyond physical activity so Guardians are ready to perform what their service demands.
“A lot of times, fitness is used as a kind of ‘go, don’t go’ thing – either you have it or you don’t,” 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 bad, their sleeping habits are bad. They’re not healthy.”
The traditional style of fitness testing has also caused some service members to make dangerous decisions. Researchers have found that some service members suffered from eating disorders in the months leading up to their fitness assessment. Other studies suggest that military personnel have a generally increased risk of eating disorder symptoms compared to their civilian counterparts.
“This increased focus on fitness or weight and shape at any given time may be associated with increased body dissatisfaction,” said Lindsay Bodell, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Western Ontario. “People can 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 studies before she and other researchers can confidently say the two are linked. 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 norm can cause people to engage in behaviors that are quite extreme to meet those norms,” she 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, height-to-height ratios, and other methods.
“If the focus continues to be on specific weight standards or weight regulation, we could still have similar consequences,” Bodell said, noting that numerous studies have found a link between the use of the fitness tracker and eating disorder symptoms.
“These kinds of constant fitness monitoring and tracking could contribute to pressures to mold one’s body to unrealistic ideals,” she said.
Elizabeth Eikey’s research touches on this subject. An assistant professor at the University of California, Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health in San Diego, she studies how technology, like fitness trackers and apps, affects mental health and wellbeing.
“For a long time, the idea was more engagement with these tools — the more consistent you are, the longer you use them — the healthier you’ll be,” Eikey said. “But what we’re finding is 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 bigger goals.
That doesn’t mean she’s against Space Force’s reassessment of how it measures fitness, though.
“It’s very important to challenge the kinds of fitness standards,” 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 Radio American Home Front Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the public broadcasting company.