Cover: Physical Fitness Standards to Support Readiness and Deployability

Physical Fitness Standards to Support Readiness and Deployability

An Examination of Department of the Air Force Policies and Culture

Published May 2, 2022

by Miriam Matthews, Carra S. Sims, Sean Robson, Matthew Walsh, Stephanie Rennane, Joshua Snoke


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Research Questions

  1. How relevant are civilian fitness results to the DAF, which has a relatively young population?
  2. What are the relationships between AF-FA components and health outcomes?
  3. What are the relationships between fitness and an airman's career outcomes?
  4. How, if at all, does the AF-FA scoring system differentiate between levels of health risk?

To ensure its service members have the requisite physical fitness to serve, the Department of the Air Force (DAF) has established a variety of medical and physical standards. The DAF also recognizes that building a more comprehensive understanding of how different factors influence exercise habits, test preparation, and the perceived importance of fitness is critical to promoting a ready and deployable force.

The authors evaluate Air Force (AF) data relevant to the Tier 1 fitness assessment (FA) from all AF-FAs completed by active duty officers and enlisted personnel from fiscal year (FY) 2005 to FY 2018 to examine the fitness of the AF's active component.

The Tier 1 FA consists of four components: a 1.5-mile run or 2.0-kilometer walk, designed to measure cardiorespiratory fitness; an abdominal circumference (AC) measurement for body composition; and push-ups and sit-ups, which assess muscular fitness. In this report, the authors explore the relationships between component fitness scores with career and health outcomes and examine airmen's perceptions of current fitness policies and the culture of fitness across the DAF. They conclude by recommending several strategies to improve the rationale for and the validity and acceptance of the AF-FA.

Key Findings

AF-FA components are associated with positive effects for career outcomes

  • Multiple fitness components are positively associated with annual retention and physical eligibility for deployment, and the strength of association is greatest for aerobic fitness, as assessed by the 1.5-mile run.
  • Likewise, multiple fitness components are positively associated with early- and mid-career outcomes, and the strength of association is again greatest for aerobic fitness.
  • These associations span multiple years: Fitness in the very first year of service (YOS) predicted annual and career outcomes over the first ten YOS.

AF-FA components are also associated with positive effects for health outcomes

  • AC and the 1.5-mile run are important components for reducing the risk of different health diagnoses.
  • Sit-ups and push-ups were less strongly associated with health outcomes.
  • The relationship between fitness and injury diagnoses was inconsistent.

Perceptions of the AF-FA and the broader culture of fitness are mixed

  • Service members do not understand why they must complete the AF-FA or why any of the AF-FA components have been included in the assessment.
  • There is a great deal of variability in perceptions of the AF-FA and its components, with some perceiving the standards as too strict and others perceiving them as too lenient.
  • Service members indicated that finding time to exercise is a barrier to fitness, and they proposed that providing time during the duty day to work out and regular unit physical training could assist with addressing this barrier.


  • Ensure airmen understand why they are required to complete the AF-FA and the purpose of each of its components.
  • Consider whether and how to provide information to airmen and guardians about their predicted health-related risks based on their AF-FA scores.
  • Continue measuring, recording, and reporting AC data.
  • Promote a culture of fitness through leadership support for physical fitness activities during the workday (i.e., physical training duty hours).
  • Consider rewarding units that regularly engage in physical activity, rather than focusing on providing incentives that are based on AF-FA scores.

Research conducted by

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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