An Airman performs one of 10 parts of an occupationally specific and operationally relevant physical training assessment at a North Carolina Air National Guard base. Photo: Airman 1st Class Juan Paz
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Creating a Culture of Fitness

March 1, 2020

USAF to launch no-risk, trial fitness tests. 

Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Feb. 28 to correct the timeline for when the no-risk testing will begin. Only Air Force Materiel Command has implemented the testing so far.

You start work at zero-dark-30, and mission demands keep you at your desk long after dark. Then it’s time to get the kids, make dinner, clean up, and finish up whatever unfinished business is still awaiting your attention. Maybe you can workout tomorrow—you think—but that next PT test is less than six weeks away, and you’re beginning to wonder if you can even pass.

Don’t sweat it.

This Spring, Airmen will be able to take as many as three no-risk PT tests before their official testing deadline. If they perform well, they can forgo further tests and accept the score for their official record. If they don’t, they can take it again.

“One of the things we noticed is that regardless of fitness level, you can get anxiety,” said Larry Anderson, chief of Air Force physical fitness policy. Once approved, units will be able to hold mock tests to alleviate some of that anxiety and allow Airmen to choose when they take the PT test.

The move is part of an Air Force-wide effort to make fitness more deeply rooted in Air Force culture and to ensure Airmen are ready to deploy anywhere, anytime across the globe, without placing too much emphasis on punitive actions for those who fall short of expectations.

Service leaders also want to know if the current fitness assessment matches the intent of the National Defense Strategy, Anderson told Air Force Magazine. The Air Force has enlisted the help of outside experts to help figure that out.

One of the things we noticed is that regardless of fitness level, you can get anxiety.Larry Anderson, chief of Air Force physical fitness policy

“We got these questions from our senior leadership, so we asked [the] RAND Corp. to come in and look at our program and identify areas that we’re strong in, and weak in, and to identify areas where we need to fix gaps,” Anderson said. “That’s coming to a conclusion pretty soon.”

The Air Force considers three factors in assessing the health of its Airmen:

  • Body composition—measuring individuals’ waists.
  • Aerobic fitness—measuring the time it takes to complete a 1.5-mile run.
  • Muscular fitness—measuring how many pushups and situps, respectively, can be completed in one minute.

Airmen who exceed minimums in each category for their age and gender, and receive a composite score greater than 90—are rated as “excellent”—and are not required to take another PT test for 12 months. Meeting all the minimums and achieving a composite score of 75 to 89.99 merits a “satisfactory” rating, but those individuals must take the test every six months. Less than 75 is an “unsatisfactory” score, according to the Air Force Instruction.

Failing the test completely could negatively impact an Airman’s career, and it might even lead to an administrative separation from the service if the individual fails too many times, said Tech. Sgt. Hung Thai, a physical training leader and the noncommissioned officer in charge of Air Force manpower, personnel, and services.

Airmen on a timed run at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. The 1.5-mile run carries the most weight in computing the overall fitness score. Photo: Airman 1st Class Benjamin Ingold

Think Positive

Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Kaleth Wright, who first floated the idea of a no-fail PT test in August, called the concept a “bad day” PT policy, saying the current system was “too heavily weighted on the negative side.”

On Jan. 20, Air Force Materiel Command started to allow Airmen who had kept current on their testing to take up to three “mock tests” prior to their test date. The diagnostic tests can be taken as far out as 45 days before their official assessment month and up to 15 days before their PT test is due.

Airmen can take a mock test for any or all of the test’s components, but the score cannot count unless the entire test is completed. Once a score is recorded, Airmen can’t take another diagnostic test until 45 days before their next testing cycle begins, according to an AFMC release.

“Physical fitness is crucial to our ability to meet mission requirements,” AFMC boss Gen. Arnold Bunch Jr. said in the release. “The diagnostic assessments will give Airmen an idea of their current fitness level and where they may need to improve prior to their test due date. This is part of an overall effort to continue to encourage a culture of fitness among all of our Airmen that includes year-round physical conditioning and healthy eating habits.”

Thai, who has worked as a physical training leader for 17 years and has conducted PT assessments at almost every unit he’s been assigned to, said the new system will help units foster healthier lifestyles, which will help Airmen prepare for the test, instead of just waiting for it to be due.

“We should, as a unit, understand their fitness level and what they are about to walk into as well,” said Thai, who has seen plenty of Airmen stress over the test. He thinks the new program will help reduce some of that tension.

“It also gives us a better understanding of their fitness level, because, as stress mounts, people tend to perform better or worse sometimes,” he said. “It doesn’t give us a good reading” of their true fitness levels.

At the Air Force Association’s 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference, Wright said the service was considering separating the waist-measurement portion of the test, which counts as 20 percent of the overall score. At the time, he said there are some Airmen who “go to great lengths to get a good score on the abdominal circumference,” taking diuretics that dehydrate the body or even starving themselves. “Then they try to run or do the other components, and we’ve had Airmen that have lost their lives and Airmen that have become injured or gotten sick.”

Initially, the idea was to take the waist measurement seven or more days before the rest of the test, but Anderson said after getting feedback from the major commands the service decided to “shelve” the idea.

“They are all tied together,” said Anderson, questioning whether the service would get a more accurate picture of an Airman’s health by separating the measurement and physical portions of the test. Some argued that spacing out the components might drive some test takers to harm themselves through extreme measures.

The problem was particularly acute for Guard and Reserve members. “Just playing with the numbers, it looked like there could be a possibility of up to 60 days between getting the abdominal circumference and physical fitness test,” he said. “Imagine getting taped in October, and, come January, doing your test. We know there are other, bigger topics to tackle, and we wanted to put our full efforts into other things.”

Life or Death

At least three Airmen suffered PT-related deaths in 2019, including two within a single week at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina. The Air Force briefly suspended PT testing to investigate. While the service has not said what exactly caused those deaths, it did add two questions to its fitness screening questionnaire in August 2019, both related to the sickle cell trait—an inherited red blood cell condition that can cause significant physical distress or even death during intense exercise.

Thai said if Airmen say they have the sickle cell trait on the questionnaire, they can’t take the test until they complete additional training. Anderson said the Air Force provides videos and other educational material explaining sickle cell and precautions affected people can take prior to doing maximum exertion exercises.

Getting Airmen to provide an honest assessment of their own health on the questionnaire is a critical piece of the equation and starts with leadership, according to Anderson.

“We need to make sure we are great wingmen,” he said. “Leadership is coming around to that.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein himself has taken this task to heart. Whether talking with Airmen at remote locations such as Thule Air Base, Greenland, where temperatures can dip significantly below zero, or here in the United States, he rarely misses a chance to tout the importance of physical and mental health.

“We’re the service that deploys globally, and I don’t know when I’m going to ask you to deploy to a place where it’s 120 degrees on the ramp or 30 below [zero] on the flight line,” Goldfein said in September 2019 after completing a half-marathon at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. “I just know that when you arrive is not the time to start a fitness program.”

Goldfein has often told USAF leaders they need to practice what they preach. During a 2019 meeting with wing commanders, Goldfein tied physical fitness to mental fitness. “What’s tough about your job isn’t physical, it’s mental,” he said in a release. “That’s the challenge of the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, keeping everybody mentally in the game. To have that kind of mental clarity requires physical fitness. There’s a direct tie. … If I get to work in the morning and I didn’t work out that morning, I feel it. … I feel it in terms of how clear my head is working on these tough issues. My best days are when I start with a good workout. Always.”

Job-Specific PT Tests Coming Soon for 10 AFSCs

Two years after the Air Force officially rolled out a more rigorous, gender-neutral physical fitness test for its most elite warriors, more and more career fields are looking to do the same.

While the regular physical fitness assessment, known as Tier I, is intended to promote a culture of fitness and reduce health risks for Airmen, Tier II tests are tailored to more physically demanding Air Force Specialty Codes [AFSC]. Each of the Tier II tests are unique and are designed to simulate what Airmen in those career fields will be asked to do on a deployment.

For example, air liaison officers and tactical air control party 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 most Airmen are required to do to assess muscular strength, the test for ALOs and TACPs includes a medicine-ball toss, two-cone drill, a trap bar, pullups with a weighted extension, cross-knee crunch, a 4×25 yard farmer’s carry, and a 1,000-meter row.

The Air Force Exercise Science Unit uses a five-step process to study and develop each of the job-specific physical fitness tests and standards.

They include:

  1. Conduct an analysis of the physical demands for that career field and develop AFSC-specific physical tasks.
  2. Develop the job-specific PT test and physical task simulations.
  3. Validate and set physical tests and standards.
  4. Implement, verify, and refine prototype tests and standards; train units.
  5. Deliver after an appropriate adaptation period.

Once a career field has completed all five steps, Airmen assigned to that AFSC are exempt from three of the four portions of the original fitness assessment. They must still complete the waist measurement portion of the test, according to officials.

Larry Anderson, chief of Air Force physical fitness policy, said, “After talking with the A1 [Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel, and services], I asked him, as more and more careers come on board, if they come on board, do we want to give them the exemption? He said, ‘Yes, absolutely.’ Moving forward, we may tweak it a little bit. First, we have to know you are legitimately going through the process to get that exemption.”

Graphic: Eric Lee/staff

A total of 10 career fields are at some point in the five-step process and will likely adopt the new tests within the next few years.

TACPs and TACP officers have already completed all five steps, as have explosive ordnance disposal Airmen. EOD Airmen already are using Tier II as their official test, but “it’s not been updated in policy yet,” said Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Carrie Volpe.

Combat rescue officers, pararescue, special tactics officers, combat control, and special reconnaissance fields have completed the third step, and USAF expects the career fields to wrap up all five steps some time in 2020.

Security Forces and fire emergency services have been approved to begin the process and are slated to complete it in 2021, Volpe said. Survival, evasion, resistance, and escape (SERE) specialists and civil engineers also have been approved to start the process, but Volpe said it’s too early to determine when the process might be complete for those career fields because the study has not yet begun.

“Other career fields have shown interest, but have not made official requests,” she added.