The Air Force delayed physical fitness (PT) testing at least four times over the past year because of COVID-19, but PT assessments are back and things look quite a bit different.
Service leaders used the pandemic break to dig into the science of measuring fitness, rolling out a series of changes before testing resumed on July 1. More changes are coming soon.
“We are moving away from a one-size-fits-all model,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. “More testing options will put flexibility in the hands of our Airmen—where it belongs. We know not all Airmen maintain their fitness the same way and may excel in different areas. Alternate components provide choices while still providing a mechanism to determine overall fitness.”
The basic test now comprises three components: running, pushups, and situps. However, beginning in 2022, Airmen and Guardians will be able to choose alternatives to each of those three:
Cardio (60 points). 1.5 mile run, 1-mile walk, a or 20-meter high-aerobic multi-shuttle run (HAMR).
Endurance (20 points). 1 minute of situps, 2 minutes of cross-leg reverse crunches, or forearm planks for an as-yet-not-determined time.
Strength (20 points). 1 minute of pushups or 2 minutes of hand-release pushups.
A perfect score is 100, but passing is 75. Those who score 90 or better may take the test only once a year, rather than twice.
“We constantly innovate,” said Lt. Gen. Brian T. Kelly, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services. “We constantly change. We constantly update what we do, in this case we’re using scientific methodology to give our Airmen options without lowering standards.”
Scoring varies based on age. Instead of adjusting for age in 10-year increments, the new system adjusts in five-year increments. Airmen and Guardians 25 and younger make up the youngest group and there are eight age groups in all.
“We felt that was a little bit more equitable based on the feedback we have received from Airmen that said, ‘Hey, you know sometimes when I’m at the end of the table, if I’m 29, it’s a little bit harder than when I was 21; when I’m 39, it’s a little bit harder than when I was 31,’” Kelly said.
‘Not a stroll in the park’
Kelly acknowledged there will be some who scoff at the idea of a 1-mile walk, but he promised it’s “not a stroll in the park,” and even predicted most people will prefer the run.
Each of the alternative exercises is designed to equally measure fitness. The walk, for example, “is a scientifically valid estimation of the member’s aerobic capacity [also referred to as VO2 max],” that takes into account a member’s age, weight, and heart rate at completion of the walk to assess aerobic power, according to the Air Force.
“You could have two people who walk the 1 mile together at exactly the same time, who are going to get different scores because their heart rates are different, their ages are different, and their weight might be different. All those factors come together for your final score,” Kelly said. “I will tell you, because I know people sometimes, you know, raise an eyebrow on the walk, the walk is … difficult. It scientifically provides the same measurement of your aerobic capacity as does the mile-and-a-half run or that shuttle run, and so if you’re not aerobically fit, you will not be able to walk that mile with your heart rate at a certain level in a certain time, and you will not pass that test.”
Kelly said longer runs can be more challenging for bigger, more muscular people, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t physically fit. The shuttle run, which measures aerobic fitness through shorter bursts of energy, might be a better fit for those Airmen. To complete the shuttle run, participants run back-and-forth, 20 meters each direction. Airmen and Guardians will leave the first line when a recording beeps, and must touch the second line with their foot before hearing the second beep. The longer you go, the faster you need to be. Your score is based off how many times you can run the 20 meters.
The alternative exercises will not be part of official testing until early next year, after a six-month trial period, but a cross-section of the force will begin testing the new exercises sooner:
- Air Combat Command—Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., and Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla.
- Air Force Materiel Command—Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, and Tinker Air Force Base, Okla.
- Air Force Special Operations Command—Mildenhall Air Base, U.K., Kadena Air Base, Japan, and Hurlburt Field, Fla.
- U.S. Air Forces in Europe—RAF Lakenheath, U.K., Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, and Aviano Air Base, Italy.
- Air Education and Training Command—Columbus Air Force Base, Miss., Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, and Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.
- Pacific Air Forces—Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, Yokota Air Base, Japan, and Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii.
- Air Mobility Command—MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., and Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark.
- Air Force Global Strike Command—Minot Air Force Base, N.D., and Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
Kelly said feedback from Airmen and Guardians who take or administer mock tests and/or practice the exercises during unit PT will be used to inform any final tweaks before the regulations and scoring tables are finalized.
“The last thing we would do is lower warfighting standards, and certainly, we don’t think we’re doing that,” Kelly told Air Force Magazine. “But we’ll certainly learn some things during the six-month trial period from our Airmen, and we’ll bring that in for adjustments before we release [final scoring charts] in early 2022.”
The Evolution of PT Testing
The Air Force has revised its fitness assessment several times over the past 40 years. Between 1981 and 1992, USAF used the 1.5-mile run to measure aerobic fitness, but it switched to a bike test in 1992 citing safety concerns. In 2004, then-Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper reinstituted the 1.5-mile run in an effort to promote a warrior culture, and also introduced the pushup and situp components as the first muscular endurance components of the test, according to an April 2021 study from RAND Project Air Force: “A Review of the Department of the Air Force Fitness Assessment.”
Prior to the recent addition of the five alternative exercises, only Airmen with medical waivers could substitute one of the three main exercises. In 2013, the service replaced the 1-mile walk for those with medical waivers with a 2-kilometer walk as an alternate for the 1.5-mile run. Kelly said there are no longer separate exercises for personnel on waivers. Instead, those Airmen will either be able to choose one of the alternative exercises, or they may skip that component of the test if they have a medical waiver.
“We didn’t design these things specifically with injuries in mind, but certainly the differences in the components allow us to help tailor, and allow us to account for medical waivers,” Kelly said.
Last year, the Air Force also introduced diagnostic testing, often referred to as the “no-fail PT test.” The change allowed Airmen to take mock tests to see how they score. If they are happy with the score, it counts as the official test, but if they fail or are not satisfied with their results, they can take another test without penalty.
Former Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force Kaleth O. Wright first floated the idea of a “bad day” PT policy in 2019, saying there would be “no harm, no foul, no discipline” for not meeting the standards once. Giving Airmen time to regroup and then retake the test when they are ready offers a reasonable second chance, he said.
The Air Force made the policy official in March 2021.
“We allow our Airmen to understand that they can take the test, sometimes in a practice sense, without any of the potential anxiety or the nerves associated with having to take the test,” Kelly said. “We had already put that in play before COVID started and we wanted to continue that.”
Assessing the Assessment
RAND found that the Air Force fitness program “is a practical assessment that measures critical components of health-related fitness using well-supported assessments.” And while researchers found the situp and pushup components were an “acceptable measure” of muscular endurance, they concluded the Air Force’s PT test does not adequately measure muscular strength, which “should be considered to ensure that Airmen can perform common military tasks during deployment.”
The report also found that the Air Force “does not fully address the physical fitness of Airmen for advanced deployments, specifically to hostile or uncertain environments.”
- The Air Force conduct a trial study to explore alternative assessment methods.
- Use Air Force data to develop “meaningful cutoff scores directly tied to health risk and readiness”
- Consider developing a predeployment fitness assessment.
Kelly said the RAND report was “a valuable input” the Air Force considered when looking at the best way to modify the test, but “not everything we did was from that study, and certainly, we didn’t adopt everything from the study.”
For example, the service brought together 300 Airmen—both male and female—to test out the shuttle run and provide feedback, before it decided to make that one of the alternative exercises, but the Army is already doing hand-release pushups so it was able to observe its sister service and use the Army’s data to help it better understand that piece. It also used data from partner militaries, such as the British, to study other potential exercises.
“What we really care about is, with whatever methodology you’re doing, we want to measure the same way,” Kelly said.
Kelly said the Air Force is not likely to adopt a predeployment fitness assessment, as recommended by the RAND study.
“We want to get to a culture where our Airmen are fit all the time, and so we think the testing regiment we put in place provides the right incentive to do that,” he said. “I don’t know that we will add a special fitness test right before you depart, but certainly as it exists today, our commanders and our supervisors have a responsibility, and I think do a good job, of making sure that those folks who are going to deploy are ready to deploy and are ready to go.”
A Unique Approach
Tier II tests are “performance-based fitness test[s] that are occupationally specific, operationally relevant, and independent of age and gender,” according to Air Force Manual 36-2905, which outlines standards and requirements for the Air Force Physical Fitness Program.
The typical 12 to 18 month process to develop and approve a Tier II test is not easy. First the career field must request the job-specific test, then they must go through a five-step process before they are able to officially take that test.
The goal is to identify the physically demanding duty tasks required to do the job, and then find exercises that will mimic those requirements as best as possible.
For example, air liaison officers (ALOs) and tactical air control party (TACPs) members still do the 1.5-mile run, but they must complete it in a much faster time than most other Airmen. Instead of the pushups and situps, the test for ALOs and TACPs assesses muscular strength with a medicine-ball toss, two-cone drill, a trap bar, pull-ups with a weighted extension, cross-knee crunch, a 4×25 yard farmer’s carry, and a 1,000-meter row.
“After the career fields request the Tier II test, there is a detailed study process—just as there was for the Tier I testing—to come up with those new components,” Kelly said. “We do an evaluation of the physical components of your job,” and then figure out how to certify the testing methodology to ensure that, in fact, “picking up this medicine ball and carrying this medicine ball is going to be equal to the task of having to pick up this bag of equipment and running with this bag of equipment 100 yards, or that the maneuver actions that are taken for Tactical Air Control Party” in the test actually mimic the “maneuvering they would do around the battlefield.”
Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass said providing Airmen with options is a “step in the right direction toward developing an Air Force that is fit to fight, anytime, anywhere.”
For now, both Airmen and Guardians will take the same PT test, but the Space Force intends to develop its own fitness standards as well as a test that is unique for that service. Like the Air Force, the Space Force wants a holistic fitness policy that instills a “culture of daily health and wellness,” a service spokeswoman said. The new policy is expected to be released in late 2021 or early 2022.