MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — Misawa airmen once categorized as out of shape or overweight got a chance at redemption and even bragging rights last week.

Their incentive: one year without mandatory testing, early-morning runs or healthy-living classes.

“I just want to pass, so I can be clear and I don’t have to be on any kind of program,” said Senior Airman Donald Turner, 24, of the 35th Maintenance Squadron.

The new Air Force fitness program swung into full gear here Tuesday. About 200 people representing 20 squadrons were to be tested throughout the week, said Maj. James Reineke, Misawa’s health promotion flight commander. Some senior leaders also were tested this week, to set an example for the troops, base officials said.

Airmen in a fitness-improvement program as of Dec. 31, 2003, must test no later than Jan. 30, Reineke said, so they are among the first to go. The Air Force requires that all active-duty airmen be tested by the end of 2004.

More rigorous Air Force physical fitness standards, part of a program called “Fit to Fight,” went into effect Jan. 1. To avoid testing again in the same calendar year, airmen must score at least 75 or above, out of a maximum 100, across four areas: abdominal circumference, push-ups, crunches and a 1.5-mile run; the run and waist measurement carry the most points.

Reineke said aerobic fitness and body composition are the two biggest factors affecting cardiovascular health.

“These standards could be a lot more difficult but they’re fair and it’s a realistic expectation for somebody that exercises on a regular basis,” he said.

After getting a tape measure wrapped around their middles, about 50 airmen from the 35th Maintenance Squadron teamed with partners at the Potter Fitness Center Wednesday for one-minute tests of push-ups and sit-ups.

After knocking out 41 crunches and 63 push-ups, a psyched Master Sgt. Richard Arbogast, 39, said the test wasn’t as hard as he’d anticipated.

In the same breath, Arbogast acknowledged the toughest challenge was yet to come: “It’s the running that’s going to kill me.”

Though it’s the heart of winter in northern Japan, Wednesday’s group headed outdoors for the run. The Air Force requires that the temperature be at least 20 degrees Fahrenheit and wind velocity less than 20 mph for a unit to complete the aerobic portion of the new test outside, Reineke said. The temperatures ran in the high 30s during the test.

Until recently, Misawa’s cold-weather outdoor running venues were limited, since snow covers the ground for much of the winter. But the 35th Civil Engineer Squadron recently paved an old cinder track near Robert D. Edgren High School for training and testing for the run, Reineke said. Civil engineers and staff members of Misawa’s Health and Wellness Center keep the asphalt track clear of snow. Just over six laps equals 1.5 miles.

If conditions are too harsh, “We found another indoor option,” Reineke said: a non-slip track in a Navy hangar. The one caveat: 1.5 miles is almost 13 laps.

“It’s a lot of laps but you’re out of the wind and out of the cold,” Reineke said. Treadmill running is not authorized for the test.

The run, which carries a maximum of 50 points, is the key piece of the new fitness program and replaces the cycle ergometry test for most airmen; those not cleared to run for medical reasons may test on the bike.

Cheered on by unit fitness monitors Wednesday, some maintainers breezed through six laps; others slowed almost to a walk.

“It sucked,” said Senior Airman Timothy Louis, 22, of the run. His time was 14:18. “Back in the day when they did weigh-ins, I never worked out. I just went on these weeklong starvation diets to make the weight. That doesn’t work out now, as you can see.”

Height and weight still are measured, Reineke said, but are not included in the scoring.

Senior Airman John Crowe, 23, fared a little better, finishing second in his group with a 12:24. “Right now I’m burning,” he said. He wanted to finish in 12 minutes, he said: “I need the points.”

Scoring is divided into eight different age categories for men and women each. An overall score below 70, considered “poor,” earns an airmen another test within 90 days, Reineke said. If in the “marginal” 70- to 74.9-point range, an airmen must test again within 180 days. Airmen in the poor range must enroll in a 4-hour healthy-living workshop and participate in physical training four to five days a week, either with one’s unit or at a fitness center class. Marginal scorers also must attend the healthy living workshop but don’t have to take part in a mandatory fitness program, Reineke said.

Under the old program, airmen who failed the cycle ergometry test twice — and then again after six months — were also put into a monitored fitness program, which at Misawa entailed running with Reineke or other Health and Wellness Center staffers for 45 minutes three days a week at the crack of dawn or in the afternoon.

“I call it the ‘fat-boy’ program,” said Senior Airman Erica Smith, 24. After having a baby in September 2002, she failed her annual weigh-in and had to get weighed and measured about every 30 days. But months of cross-training at the gym prepared her for Wednesday’s run, she said. A time of 13:40 meant she passed.

“Oh yeah, I’m happy,” she said. “I don’t have to do this again for a year.”

With almost a week of testing completed, Reineke said, “We’re getting a fair number of people in the ‘marginal’ category, which is to be expected because it’s a new program and it’s part of moving people into a new personal fitness program,” in which exercise becomes a habit.

“We’re not there yet, but we’ll get there,” he said.

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

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