Waist, not weight, to gauge airman’s fitness
January 10, 2004
ARLINGTON, Va. — Airmen who expected to begin the New Year with their annual step on official scales can sit back down, because Air Force officials no longer care how much you weigh.
As of Jan. 1, the service’s weight tables and its complicated body fat percentage scales are obsolete, as are all the punitive actions that could follow when airmen fell short of the mark.
Now, instead of whether someone “looks fat,” Air Force fitness is “about whether a person can do their job,” Maj. Lisa Schmidt, the Air Force Surgeon General chief of health promotion operations, said in a Thursday telephone interview.
Although long-standing military members may find revolutionary the concept of a “weight-free” fitness analysis, abandoning weight standards is actually the logical outgrowth of the Air Force’s new “health-based” approach to keeping a combat-ready force, Schmidt said.
The changes began last summer, when Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper announced that the old stationary bicycle fitness test would be replaced in 2004 with a four-point test that includes a 1½-mile run, sit-ups, push-ups, and a waist measurement.
That waist measurement, the only part of the new test in which standards do not ease with age, is a guarantee that obese individuals won’t be gracing squadron bays in the near future, Schmidt said.
Men’s waistlines may not exceed more than 40 inches, while women max out at 35 inches.
And with the waist measurement worth a total of 30 points on the 100-point fitness test, an airman who goes over the limit “and earns zero points on the abdominal circumference can’t pass the test,” Schmidt said.
Focusing the test a trio of aerobic capability, strength and abdominal circumference “makes it difficult to game the score,” Schmidt said. “You’re not just looking at part of someone,” such as a number on a scale.
The military services’ adherence to those scale numbers is a source of angst for many military members, especially people who are body builders or genetically inclined to a larger frame. Muscle and bone weigh more than fat, but scales don’t discriminate between the various tissues.
In 2002, the Defense Department issued a directive that requires each service to have standards based on body fat measurements, not weight.
Yet although body fat measurements are considered to be more precise gauges of fatness, many fitness experts challenge the accuracy of the tape test chosen as the gold standard by the Pentagon.
Differences in how even the best-intentioned tester positions the tape measure and holds it taut can result in mistakes of average plus or minus 3 percent of body fat, according to experts at places like the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research, a Dallas-based company that has sponsored many of the scientific studies used by corporations, universities, and health facilities to devise their own fitness programs and standards.
The Cooper studies were instrumental in the Air Force’s decision to toss its old body fat measurements and adopt the single waist measurement, which has been scientifically proven to be a marker for a variety of health issues, such as propensity for heart attacks, Schmidt said.
The instructions issued by the Air Force to kill the old weight requirements also declare the weight and body fat management program — a remedial program that was mandatory for weight and body fat flunkees — obsolete as of Jan. 1.
As long as an airman was involved in a remedial weight program, his or her career was in potential jeopardy. Promotions might be deferred, as well as selections for special schools, command, and Permanent Change of Station assignments.
Ultimately, an airman could be told to leave the service if he or she could not meet the weight requirements.
Unit-wide, year-round fitness programs that Jumper has directed Air Force commanders to design for all their members are replacing the weight management program. Jumper also expects commanders to be at the front of the line when it comes time for the workouts.
“Commanders, supervisors, and front-line leaders must lead the way — through unit physical training, personal involvement and, most important, by example,” wrote Jumper in a Jan. 8 message sent to all Air Force commanders.