Annual physical fitness tests are a cornerstone of military life. Each service has its own take on the annual assessment mandated by the Department of Defense.
But the country’s newest military branch is scrapping that model.
Members of the Space Force, called Guardians, do not have an annual test. Instead, they get smart rings or other wearable fitness devices to keep track of their physical activity year-round. The devices will also be programmed to provide feedback on mental health, balanced diet and sleep.
US Space Force leadership says the approach will prioritize the overall well-being of service members beyond just one physical exam per year. The annual testing has triggered eating disorder symptoms and other unhealthy behaviors in some military personnel.
“This program will not only promote physical fitness; it will combine fitness with sound education about diet, sleep hygiene, and other physiological factors to also promote social, mental, and spiritual health,” wrote Patricia Mulcahy, the Space Force’s deputy chief of staff for space operations, in a note.
The change is still taking shape and will not be fully implemented until 2023. Until then, the Guardians must complete one more Air Force fitness test — a timed 1.5-mile run and one-minute push-ups and sit-ups each.
Overall fitness expectations won’t change much, said Chief Master Sgt. James Seballes, the force’s senior leader in 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 their program. It is also planning a digital community where Guardians can see data from their own fitness trackers and compare them to those of their peers.
Austin-based FitRankings is building this online platform, which will allow Guardians to get credit for activities they typically engage in, rather than assessing them against 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. “These tests have a certain dimensionality that favors one form of activity over another.”
That was one of the main frustrations Hitchins said he’d heard from military personnel about fitness tests. FitRankings tries to alleviate this by converting every physical activity into a MET minute, a measure of energy expenditure.
“Guardians could do any type of activity,” Hitchins said. “We could turn it into that metric and then create a culture-building, community-boosting challenge around that data.”
Some in the Space Force expect Guardians to use the data to take more responsibility for their overall health, said Maj. Gen. Shawn Bratton, commander of Space Training and Readiness Command, which has been testing fitness-tracking rings.
“I have a greater responsibility to not just take a fitness test once a year, but to exercise maybe 90 minutes a week,” Bratton said. “The ring helps me keep track of that and my sleep patterns.”
Bratton said leaders want to emphasize health beyond physical activity so Guardians are ready to perform what their ministry requires.
“Often fitness is used as a ‘go, no-go’ thing – you either have it or you don’t,” Seballes said. “I know people who do all their aspects of PT and can run a mile really fast, and yet they have bad eating habits, their sleeping habits are bad. You are not healthy.”
The traditional nature of fitness testing has also pushed some military personnel to make dangerous decisions. Researchers have found that some military personnel experience eating disorders in the months leading up to their fitness assessments. Other studies suggest that military personnel have an overall 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 an increase in physical dissatisfaction,” said Lindsay Bodell, assistant professor of psychology at Western University in Ontario. “People may be more conscious of their bodies and their performance at this 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 tied to career advancement and other military opportunities, she said.
“Having these consequences of not meeting the standard can lead people to engage in pretty extreme behaviors 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 continues to be on specific weight standards or weight regulation, we can still experience similar consequences,” Bodell said, noting that many studies have found an association between fitness tracker use and eating disorder symptoms.
“These types of constant fitness monitoring and tracking could contribute to the pressure to mold one’s body to unrealistic ideals,” she said.
Elizabeth Eikey’s research touches on this topic. As an assistant professor at the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health at the University of California, San Diego, she studies how technologies such as fitness trackers and apps affect mental health and well-being.
“For a long time, the idea was to get more into these tools — the more consistent you are, the longer you use them — the healthier you become,” 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 a healthier lifestyle, Eikey said, especially when it comes to higher goals.
However, that doesn’t mean she’s against the Space Force measuring her fitness.
“It’s very important to challenge the kind of standards around fitness,” Eikey said. “That’s an admirable thing. Are these technologies really the right way to do it?”
This story is from us Public Radio St. Louis and was produced by North Carolina public radio stations American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration reporting on American military life and veterans. Funding is provided by the Society for Public Service Broadcasting.
Copyright 2022 Public Radio St. Louis. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.