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Research Questions

  1. What evidence is available to support the inclusion of each fitness component into an AF-FA?
  2. What is the relationship between each fitness component and health, general military task performance, and injury risk?
  3. What assessments are appropriate for measuring each fitness component?
  4. What limitations or concerns are associated with FAs?
  5. Are there alternative tests that should be considered?

Military readiness requires service members to be mentally and physically fit to perform duties in various environments. To determine whether service members have the requisite physical fitness to serve, the U.S. Air Force (AF) and its sister services have established various medical and physical standards. These standards are first applied as part of an initial screening for military entrance. After joining, service members must continue to maintain fitness in accordance with their respective service policies. This report presents an overview of research relevant to fitness assessment (FA) components to ensure airmen readiness, support the National Defense Strategy, and promote a culture of health and well-being across the AF. The authors conducted an evaluation of the AF-FA using scientific evidence drawn from published literature on relevant FA components, with an emphasis on the potential for current assessments to meet overall health and deployment requirements. Evidence from the literature was augmented with workshops and discussions with a variety of subject-matter experts, including those familiar with deployment readiness training. The authors also identify potential gaps and offer recommendations for improvement. The work in this report should be of interest to military policymakers and researchers involved in setting and evaluating military physical fitness standards.

Key Findings

The current AF-FA is considered a practical assessment

  • An AF-FA measures critical components of health-related fitness using well-supported assessments.
  • The 1.5-mile run is a valid and well-supported measure of cardiorespiratory fitness. Alternative tests, such as the shuttle run, bike test, and row ergometer, are also valid measures and may have utility in specific cases.
  • Abdominal (or waist) circumference is a valid measure of body composition. Alternative measures, such as the waist-to-height ratio, may provide some additional benefits.
  • Sit-ups and push-ups are acceptable measures of muscular endurance. However, there are concerns about subjectivity associated with evaluating these tests and the risk of injury associated with sit-ups.
  • Muscular strength is not currently measured in the AF-FA, but including it should be considered to ensure that airmen can perform common military tasks during deployment.

Flexibility is not measured by the AF-FA

  • However, flexibility is not clearly linked to health outcomes, injuries, or military task performance.

The AF does not use a separate FA to determine deployment readiness

  • The AF does not fully address the physical fitness of airmen for advanced deployments, specifically to hostile or uncertain environments.

Recommendations

  • The AF should conduct a trial study to explore alternative assessments.
  • Many alternative tests could be considered. In addition to determining the reliability and validity of alternative assessments, the cost-benefit of changes needs to be considered.
  • The AF should leverage its data to establish criterion-referenced standards based on health risks (or other important outcomes) for all fitness components.
  • Linking relevant data would allow the AF to establish meaningful cutoff scores directly tied to health risk and readiness.
  • The AF should consider developing a predeployment FA.
  • Many movement patterns and fieldcraft training tasks may require physical abilities not covered by AF-FAs. Training instructors suggest that up to 30 percent of airmen arrive at advanced predeployment training without the requisite fitness. A new assessment would require the exploration of such topics as the standard setting for an FA, who should take the test and how often, and what tests should be included.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the Air Force's Force Management Policy Directorate (AF/A1P) and conducted by the Manpower, Personnel, and Training Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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