Will the Air Force’s New Approach to Fitness Work?

The US Air Force is fighting the “spread” of COVID with a new approach to physical fitness. How about this: choose your own PT test?

All branches of the military have physical fitness requirements. The Marines incorporate a lot of running and weight-bearing into their programs. The navy offers surfing and swimming. Or row. Or run. Or something. The Army is closest to the Air Force program, with runs, crunches, and push-ups. So far, that is.

US Air Force aviators have not had a department-wide PT program since COVID moved in, lifted its feet, smashed a beer and said, “I’m not leaving!” With social distancing, masking and shutting down facilities, the Air Force Department has decided that fitness testing may take a back seat to preparation. Airmen have spent the last year training alone (yes, that’s right), in local squadron programs, or saying, “Yes, I’ll have that jelly donut, thank you very much.” . “

In the Dark Days (late 90s) basic training was to run when I signed up. That’s what it seemed, anyway. Due to an incompetent handlebar wearer my flight doubled to each destination from week two to the end. We ran in formation, in pairs, up and down hills, over sidewalks, streets, grass and sand. We ran with ITs yelling at us, other interns, and even each other yelling at us. It was very confusing. When I reached my first duty station, however, I was put on a bicycle.

Members of the Wolf Pack warm-up for a spin class at Kunsan Air Force Base, Republic of Korea, April 16, 2014. The spin class is offered four times a week at the Wolf Pack Fitness Center. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Clayton Lenhardt / Released)

For some reason, Air Force leaders in the 1990s decided that aerobic fitness could be best measured using a stationary bike and heart rate. Record a resting heart rate, then record the increase as you pedal and add more tension to the bike. The problem was that the resting heart rate was subjective and the heart rate was only recorded at the top of the minute. I once realized that I could score 100% all day long by holding my breath at the 50 second mark. Heart rate drops from oxygen saturation and I put marathon runner numbers on my tests. I still smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, still ate cinnamon rolls for breakfast and bacon cheeseburgers for lunch, and still posted marathon numbers.

In 2004, Air Force leaders decided that we should all be able to run. The 1.5 mile race was back, and she was back to stay this time. I am not a runner. I believe it has already been established; I’m a bacon-cheeseburger eater. When they told me I had to run, I cried, but I ran. I ran for years until those knees halfway up my legs decided they were tired of all that “cartilage” stuff and decided to rip it up and throw it away. For years we were friends. Those knees held me up, man, through everything. Why did they betray me?

The bone-to-bone knee joints don’t create favorable running conditions, so I got a waiver to walk instead. Most people hear walking and assume a walk in the park. Although it often happens in some sort of park, it was not a fun walk. The requirements for me (middle aged dude) were 16 minutes and 18 seconds to travel two kilometers. Sixteen minutes is a lot of time. I hear a lot of you say. The minimum pace to meet this requirement is 4.6 miles per hour. I challenge anyone to jump on a treadmill, set the pace to 4.6 and see how fast it really is. One foot should always touch the ground throughout, so a light jog is right on. I failed several times for this.

Fitness program updates rolled out in 2022 include options for aerobic fitness. Airmen now have the option to “choose their own adventure” when it comes to PT testing. Aerobic fitness will now be measured as a 1.5-mile run, a one-mile brisk walk, or a 20-meter shuttle run. My knees hurt just from typing the words “shuttle”.

Part of me wants to react like any crisp old retiree: look at these young whipers and their options! Why in my day we crawled on the bones of our enemies, scaled the shattered dreams of our friends, and killed fire-breathing SNCOs to pass the PT tests. It made us harder and fueled our addictions to nicotine and energy drinks. Times, however, are changing.

For once, I’m happy for these new aviators. Everyone in uniform should be in better physical condition than the average bear. Being in good shape is more than looking professional in a uniform. It can be the difference between being full and being depressed about being hurt. With an ever-changing workforce due to COVID right now, the healthier the force, the more likely it is to respond to threats and tasks around the world.

Providing aviators with fitness options is one way the Air Force responds to changing landscapes. Push-ups and sit-ups are always on the menu, as is running. New offerings include manual release pushups, cross crunches, and core strength measuring boards. Anyone who has been boarding for more than a minute or more knows how to stop time, but there are some who seem to like it. The waistline has gone by the wayside, at least when it comes to scoring. Gone are the days, a waistline of 35 inches guarantees a perfect score on the abdominal circumference component. It was always a score-getter for me; this guy is blessed with the right metabolism.

Senior Airman Eddie Castillo, 433rd Force Support Squadron service journeyman, advises Senior Airman Joseph Sosa, 433rd Logistics Readiness Squadron ramp representative, during his physical fitness assessment July 10, 2021, at Joint Base San Antonio -Lackland, Texas, while Staff Sgt. Sean Harein, 433rd Logistics Readiness Squadron log planner, counts the rehearsals. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Samantha Mathison)

Another plus point for the fitness program is the ability to perform a diagnostic test. In the past, practice tests administered by Fitness Assessment Cell staff were officially recorded and the scores could be used against a person. There was no option to do mock tests with officials who did not come with an official score. A great way to accidentally fail a test and receive the documents. Now diagnostic tests can be performed and pass marks can be entered, while failed tests can be retaken, as long as the member is not late. The provision of these types of tests helps Airmen know their “official” fitness level without fear of failures and unwanted actions by personnel.

Every day the news brings new horror, one group or another is offended, or you should believe this politician rather than this other. Things are constantly changing, that’s the point. Since separating from the military, the Air Force has made dozens of changes to its fitness requirements. Some of these changes have benefited Airmen, some have benefited AF through force shaping, and some have just made us scratch our heads. These latest changes make me stroke my chin and say, “Hmmm… Give them options to stay fit to fight?” It might work well.

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