Physical Fitness Standards to Support Readiness and Deployability
May 2, 2022
The authors examine measures used to monitor the general fitness of airmen. They present evidence to suggest that body mass index (BMI), although commonly used as a sole indicator of overweight or obesity status in personnel and media reports, can be misleading when used alone. Specifically, BMI may misclassify service members as overweight or obese when they are not, and other fitness metrics suggest that force fitness has improved over time.
It Depends on How Fitness Is Measured
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Physical fitness is an important element of military readiness and is the responsibility of every airman. U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and U.S. Air Force (USAF) policies reflect this view. DoD's position is firmly grounded and supported by decades of research that has established clear linkages between physical fitness and a wide variety of health outcomes, such as hypertension and heart disease.
This report focuses on measures used to monitor the general fitness of airmen, which guide personnel actions and reports on the health of the force. To provide a more comprehensive evaluation of USAF fitness and health, the authors compare results from the 2018 DoD Health Related Behaviors Survey with data collected as part of regular USAF fitness assessments from fiscal year (FY) 2005 through FY 2018.
The authors present evidence to suggest that body mass index (BMI), although commonly used as a sole indicator of overweight or obesity status in personnel and media reports, can be misleading when used alone. Specifically, BMI may misclassify service members as overweight or obese when they are not; BMI may be less accurate than other easily obtained measures, such as abdominal circumference (AC) or waist-to-height ratio (WHtR); other fitness metrics suggest that USAF fitness has improved over time; and other USAF measures that assess cardiorespiratory and muscular fitness should also be used in conjunction with body composition measures to provide a more accurate assessment of health risk across subgroups (e.g., gender, race).
This research was commissioned by the Air Force's Force Management Policy Directorate (AF/A1P) and conducted within the Workforce, Development, and Health Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.
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