Is The New Air Force BMI Standard Fit for Duty?

With too many airmen failing the waist measurement test, the Air Force has adjusted its standards. But at what sacrifice?

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For most healthy Air Force members, fitting into a size 39 pant for men or 35.5 for women doesn't sound too difficult. But, Air Force members have failed to measure up to these numbers when having their waist circumference tested, leading to an increase in discharges. According to a report in the Air Force Times, of the approximately 1.3 million airmen who took the physical training test between October 2010 and March 2013, a total of 30,174 have failed the waist measurement component of the test.

While not being able to measure up during PT testing used to mean an automatic fail, the Air Force recently relaxed the standards.

As of October 1, airmen who do not meet the waist measurement requirements but pass the pushup, sit-up and running components of the PT test will be measured using the Body Mass Index taping guidance outlined in Defense Department instructions, chief of staff general Mark Welsh wrote in an August 21 message to airmen.

But the move leads fitness professionals to question the standards set by the Air Force and military fitness centers to search for ways to ensure they keep their members up to standard.

"To be honest, either measurement by itself is not great as a total measure of fitness," says Kenneth Fernandez a certified personal trainer and author of Be a Fit Foodie. "BMI would be better in terms of body fat a person has and to let you know what their muscle mass is, but due to the height component, a short muscular person might still be considered obese."

Fernandez says the waist measurement is even worse.

"Waist measurement is very poor [at gauging overall health] because someone's physical-bone or anthropomorphic measurements can vary so much," he says. "Big guy, small waist; big guy large bones, bigger waist. Nothing about these tests really speaks to fitness level. True fitness level would be best measured by flexibility, cardiovascular output, muscle mass/strength, and body composition."

Other fitness pros agree that the measurements utilized might be in need of a shape-up as much as the airmen themselves.

"The military is using outdated ideas," says Bill Rundle, NASM-CPT. "BMI could be better as an overall measurement because of body types, but I would think that having the average age of a soldier being in his or her 20s and having a waist measurement as high as 39 as the standard is the real problem."

Rundle adds that this is perhaps symptomatic of an even larger issue.

"I wonder what this says about the fitness of America overall," Rundle says. "If you ask me, going from one standard of testing to another in order to get their people to pass doesn't say a lot about commitment to a high standard."

The setting of any standard is only one step in helping base fitness centers help their members meet or exceed it. Education on all matters of fitness is critical, according to Fernandez.

"It is more important than ever," he says, "for fitness centers to focus on teaching members how nutrition affects body composition changes and the role of macro-nutrients within exercise and activities of daily living."

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