Eric Schmid/St. Louis Public Radio
Annual physical fitness tests are a cornerstone of military life. Each service has its own take on 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 get smart rings or other wearable fitness devices to track their physical activity all year round. The devices will also be programmed to provide feedback on mental health, balanced eating and sleeping.
The US Space Force leadership says the approach will prioritize the general wellbeing of service members, more than just one physical assessment per year. The annual tests have fueled symptoms of eating disorders and other unhealthy behaviors in some servicemen.
“Not only does this program promote physical fitness, it will combine fitness with thorough education about nutrition, 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 will not be fully implemented until 2023. Until then, Guardians have yet to complete an Air Force fitness test — a timed 1.5-mile run and one minute of push-ups and sit-ups.
Overall fitness expectations won’t change much, said Chief Master Sgt. James Seballes, the senior enlisted leader of 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 has tested Garmin watches and Oura rings for its program. It also plans a digital community where Guardians can see and compare data from their own fitness trackers with their peers.
Austin-based FitRankings is building that online platform, giving Guardians credit for activities they normally do, rather than rating them on specific exercises during the annual test.
“Maybe you’re not good at running, maybe you’re not good at pullups,” said FitRankings CEO Patrick Hitchins. “There’s a degree of dimensionality to these tests that favors one form of activity over another.”
That was a big frustration. Hitchins said he heard about aptitude tests from military members. FitRankings tries to alleviate it by converting any physical activity into a MET minute, a measure of energy expenditure.
“Guardians can do any type of activity,” Hitchins said. “We could turn it into this metric and then create a culture-building, community-based challenge around that data.”
Some in the Space Force expect Guardians to use the data to take more responsibility for their overall health, said Major General Shawn Bratton, commander of Space Training and Readiness Command, which has tested fitness tracking rings.
Demond McGhee/US Air Force
“I have a bigger 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 and my sleep pattern.”
Bratton said leaders want to emphasize health beyond physical activity so that Guardians are willing to carry out what their service requires.
“A lot of times, fitness is used as a kind of ‘go, no-go’ — you either have it or you don’t,” Seballes said. “I know people who can do all their PT aspects and run a mile 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 led some military personnel to make dangerous decisions. Researchers have found that some military personnel suffer from eating disorders in the months leading up to their fitness assessments. Other studies suggest that military members have an overall increased risk of eating disorder symptoms compared to their civilian counterparts.
“This heightened focus on fitness or weight and shape over time may be associated with an increase 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 point.”
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 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 behave in some pretty extreme ways to meet those standards,” she said.
But Bodell added that fitness monitors 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 focus remains on specific weight norms or weight regulation, we could still have the same consequences,” Bodell said, noting that many studies have found a link between fitness tracker use and eating disorder symptoms.
“This kind of constant fitness monitoring and tracking can add to the pressure to mold one’s body toward unrealistic ideals,” she said.
Elizabeth Eikey’s research touches on that subject. An assistant professor at the University of California Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health in 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 involvement with these tools — the more consistent you are, the longer you use them — the healthier you’ll be,” Eikey said. “But what we find 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 higher-stakes goals.
That doesn’t mean she’s against the Space Force for re-evaluating how it measures fitness, though.
“It’s very important to question the kind of standards around fitness,” Eikey said. “That’s an admirable thing to do. Are these technologies really the right way to do it?”
This story comes to us from St. Louis Public Radio and was produced by North Carolina Public Radios American home front project, a public media collaboration covering U.S. military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Public Broadcasting Company.