It’s Friday morning, and airmen assigned to the 603rd Air Control Squadron are essentially on temporary duty at the base track at Italy’s Aviano Air Base.

They arrive by the dozens and are soon going through calisthenics on a large stretch of wet grass. After instruction on the proper way to do push-ups and sit-ups, they go through the drills. Then they’re off and running around and around the track, with the Dolomite Mountains gleaming in the distance.

Less than a year after the Air Force instituted tougher fitness standards, it’s hard not to see someone running or engaged in physical activity at Air Force facilities.

“It is due to the new fitness standards,” said Staff Sgt. Joseph Couser, who works at the Health and Wellness Center at Aviano.

And airmen are obviously training for the test. Joggers weren’t a common sight at many bases before the new standards went into effect in January.

But now that airmen have to run a mile and a half — in addition to sit-ups, push-ups and an abdominal measurement — running is definitely en vogue.

“The gym is packed now,” said Tech. Sgt. Jeff Ribelin of the 48th Medical Support Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England. “It’s definitely overflowing onto the track. There are times when you can hardly run out here.”

That’s prompted some to take to the roads inside their bases. At Aviano, the fitness center has index cards detailing possible routes. One just inside the base perimeter has been measured at about 10 kilometers.

The base has no defined running path for those looking to avoid the track.

But Jason Johnson, chief of the engineer flight for the 31st Civil Engineer Squadron, said one has been designed. It’s just a matter of getting the funding to make it happen, he said.

Unity in numbers

Under the plan formulated by Air Force leadership, unit commanders have a great deal of discretion in both their unit’s fitness training and testing.

There are, of course, general guidelines. All airmen must have mandatory physical training three times a week. And everyone needs to pass the physical fitness test every year.

But commanders can decide if individuals will be tested in their birth month, all at once or on some other timetable. They also can determine if the unit exercises together or on an individual basis.

“When (Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John) Jumper’s notice came out in January, we took that to heart,” said Capt. Nathan Tarkowski, manpower resources section chief at U.S. Air Forces in Europe headquarters at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. The 25 airmen in his group exercise together twice a week.

It’s more of a challenge for larger units, such as the 603rd. When they take to the track, they generally take the track. Those actually taking the fitness tests, regardless of unit, have priority on the track. But others looking for quiet time alone should find out when the bigger units normally train.

“Our track is very, very busy,” said Robin Brandimore, fitness program director for the 31st Services Squadron at Aviano. “It’s not unusual to see 200 people out at a time.”

Variable routines

Brandimore said the fitness center itself isn’t suffering. The old fitness standards relied on scores from a stationary bicycle. So getting a seat could sometimes take making a reservation, even though many say they didn’t need to train much.

“It wasn’t the hardest test,” Couser said. “You could smoke a cigarette, have a cup of coffee and go in and pass the test.”

The bikes don’t seem to be as much in demand these days. But civilians and family members are still pedaling away. And airmen — encouraged to vary their individual workouts — still hop on.

Couser said engaging in the same physical activity — even if it’s a brisk run every day — won’t help improve an individual’s physical fitness.

“If you continue to do the same exercise again and again, you’ll get to a point where it’s just normal for your body,” he said. Simple changes such as adding hills, running faster or longer distances make a difference. Engaging in other exercises, such as lifting weights or calisthenics, help as well.

That’s why the members of the 603rd were getting a few grass stains. To achieve the minimum scores for the test, airmen need to be able to do a fair number of sit-ups and push-ups in addition to the mile-and-a-half run.

There’s not really a set number that needs to be achieved in any specific category. It’s a combination of the three physical activities, plus the measurement around the abdomen. Airmen get points for each and need a total of 75 points to pass.

To achieve the maximum score, Couser said a male airman under 25 must do 63 push-ups, 55 sit-ups, run the distance in 9 minutes, 36 seconds or less and have an abdominal measurement of 32½ inches or smaller. A woman in the same age category needs to do 42 push-ups, 51 sit-ups, run in 11:06 or less and measure 29½ inches or smaller.

More than 90 percent of those who have taken the test in USAFE through July had passed it, according to Maj. Patrick Ryder, a command spokesman.

Even those in units who traditionally spend a lot of time behind desks have achieved success.

“Everybody passed, so I would say we’re doing outstanding,” said Maj. Anissa Bowers, USAFE command budget analyst, talking about the 29 airmen in her unit. The 34-year-old passed in the “excellent” range.

At Kunsan Air Base in South Korea, the base gym is often jammed with airmen doing push-ups, lifting weights, shooting baskets and running on the treadmill because of the new fitness standards.

“I think it’s working out great; I’ve lost 30 pounds … a whole lot fitter than when I first came here,” said Master Sgt. Timothy Talbot, a manpower analyst and PT leader with the 8th Mission Support Squadron. “The actual fitness level of the people that I work with has improved.”

The 8th Fighter Wing initiated a training program several months before the debut of the new standards to prepare airmen for the new tests.

“I’m pacing myself,” said Staff Sgt. Latrice Harris as she worked out at the gym. Harris works in personnel relocation for the squadron. At her previous base, “we really didn’t do PT like we do here. … At first, it was hard. You’re out there running, not giving up.”

But Harris stays with it because she thinks that airmen can’t afford to be out of shape.

“Just being fit to fight, being ready to fight, you’re not going to be losing your breath after two or three minutes’ running,” she said.

Training continues after the tests have been taken. Aviano, for instance, reports that more than 80 percent of its airmen have already taken the test. And people keep coming to work out.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to break away to do PT,” Bowers said. “So it’s a good thing it’s a requirement. Otherwise, we might just stay here and work.”

Staff writers Ron Jensen in England, Marni McEntee in Germany and Franklin Fisher in South Korea contributed to this report.

author picture
Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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