By Master Sgt. Chuck Roberts, Airman magazine
/ Published October 01, 2004
SAN ANTONIO (AFPN) -- The Air Force chief of staff fired a shot across the bow in July 2003 that got the attention of Airmen everywhere.
Gen. John P. Jumper forewarned that a new fit-to-fight program would replace the cycle ergometry test and encouraged everyone to get ready.
Staff Sgt. Kurt Hartmann did not, and he paid the price. After narrowly squeaking by on the bike test in years past at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., he finally peddled into the penalty zone. Then he left for a remote tour in South Korea. He arrived just in time for a head-on collision with the demanding new fitness test, which includes running, abdominal-circumference measurement, push-ups and sit-ups.
He wiped out with a failing score of 56 that included 14 sit-ups, 25 push-ups and a 15-minute, 20-second time on his one-and-a-half-mile run. And he was not awarded any bonus points for sporting a 37-inch waist.
The total number of points earned on the fitness test places Airmen into one of four categories based on age and gender: Ninety or greater is excellent, 75 to 89.9 is good, 70 to 74.9 is marginal and less than 70 is poor. However, Sergeant Hartmann’s poor marks served as a wake-up call for the 25-year-old who had not worked out in earnest since high school.
“I thought it was time to change something, literally, big time,” said the maintenance training instructor assigned to the 8th Maintenance Operations Squadron at Kunsan Air Base. He did, and joined thousands of Airmen across the Air Force competing for space at fitness centers and running tracks.
He bought a bike, received mandatory fitness counseling and quit hibernating in his dorm room feeling depressed about being separated from his wife, Staff Sgt. Kimberly Hartmann, back at Luke. He became an enthusiastic participant at the 6 a.m. office workout three days a week, lost 20 pounds and saw his waistline decrease by almost 3 inches.
In July, he retested and is now among 85 percent of Airmen who have marginal or better on the test. His 75.35 score included 28 sit-ups, 37 push-ups and a running time of 11:55. Air Force scores, as of July, were 14-percent excellent, 63-percent good, 8-percent marginal, 5-percent poor and 9-percent other (exempt or because of retest). Points are awarded in different categories based on age. To gauge your score, check out the fitness charts at www.af.mil/news/USAF_Fitness_Charts.pdf.
Sergeant Hartmann not only passed the test, but he also made fitness a part of his life.
“I love the way I feel after I workout,” Sergeant Hartmann said.
He took to heart the intent of General Jumper, who said his focus is “not on passing a fitness test once a year. More important, we are changing the culture of the Air Force. This is about our preparedness to deploy and fight. It’s about warriors. It is about instilling an expectation that makes fitness a daily standard -- an essential part of your service.”
At Bagram AB, Afghanistan, 1st Lt. Bryan McKay is serious about being fit to fight.
“If you’re in the profession of arms, you should be in good shape,” said the chief of the 455th Expeditionary Communications Flight. “You should show up in good shape because it speaks positively of you and establishes confidence in the team.”
Being fit also plays a practical role in his job when it comes to running heavy cable wire in blistering summer heat.
“The better shape that you’re in, the better you can do your job,” said the 24-year-old.
And if Airmen on his team are not in shape when they arrive, they will soon be. Despite 12-hour shifts, six days a week, the lieutenant and five people from his flight work out as many as six days a week, including two six-mile runs along the base perimeter road in the early morning before the heat gets ugly.
Some people on base, as well as his commander at Scott AFB, Ill., question their sanity, Lieutenant McKay said.
“I think we’re a little crazy, too,” he said, admitting they are a bit “gung-ho.”
Also fighting and staying fit at Bagram is Senior Airman Charles Chandler. He made a pact with five fellow Airmen of the 109th Aerial Port Flight before going to Afghanistan to “motivate and discipline each other to go to the gym every day.”
Arriving physically fit, he said, is important because Airmen do not know what to expect when they show up at remote locations. Staying fit also helped the New York Air National Guardsmen remain “team oriented” and to “stick together like a family.”
The extent of such resolve was a pleasant surprise to officials at the Air Force Surgeon General’s office. They expected only about a 75-percent pass rate during initial startup of the new test, said Maj. Maureen Harback, deputy chief for health promotions operations at the office.
She attributes the early success rates, which represents half of the Air Force, to Airmen taking the six-month heads-up by General Jumper seriously.
“It reflects what Airmen are focused on,” the major said.
Also, she said, it seems that many are willing to make the effort to train for the new test because they believe their hard work in the gym will have direct payoff with a good score.
That was not always the case with cycle ergometry, said Col. Philip LaKier, deputy command surgeon for U.S. Air Forces in Europe, who oversees the command’s testing. The old test suffered from stories commonly heard at most bases -- the couch potato who easily passed the test while the marathon runner failed. While that scenario could possibly prove true in less than 1 percent of all cases in a base population of 10,000, it still becomes the stuff of urban legends, he said.
That is not the case with the new test, which about 85 percent of command Airmen passed, Colonel LaKier said. He said Airmen seem to view the new test as “effort dependent -- if they try harder they should do better.”
And it has a practical application. With the new test, people can make the connection between push-ups and filling sandbags -- a hot and strenuous duty performed by Airmen at Balad AB, Iraq, where they fill bags and stack them around tents for protection from mortar attacks that have claimed the life of one Airman.
The new test also makes sense logistically, he said, explaining that cycle ergometry requires special equipment and training to test people one-on-one. With fit to fight, the test can be given in the field by a physical training leader who can monitor several people at the same time.
“This is a much better test,” said Staff Sgt. Joshua James DiTullio, a physical training leader at Soto Cano AB, Honduras. “Before, it wasn’t a true test of your physical ability. You were at the mercy of the computer.” With the new test, he said he is definitely “more fit to fight.”
Getting started into the new way of working out was a bit slow and painful at first, but now Sergeant DiTullio said he enjoys greater “mental clarity” and a more toned body.
“I think it’s a move in the right direction,” said the quality assurance evaluator for the base’s liquid fuels and water systems.
But like Sergeant Hartmann, not everyone was moving in the right direction when testing began. At Pacific Air Forces, about 14 percent scored in the poor or marginal category, said Leyla Kelter, the command’s fitness program consultant.
In many cases, she said, the problem had more to do with being unprepared than a lack of effort. Some underestimated how much time they needed to prepare, while others overestimated their running ability. Even factoring waist size to determine points for body composition can be tricky because it is easy to squeeze the tape measure a bit tighter than appropriate, Ms. Kelter said.
“It’s just a matter of education and using their time better,” Ms. Kelter said from her office at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska.
But for those who fail the test, help is there. Airmen with a marginal score must attend a healthy-living workshop at the local health and wellness center where they receive about two hours of counseling on subjects such as behavior modification, nutrition and fitness improvement. These Airmen must retest within 180 days.
Airmen with a poor rating must attend the healthy-living workshop and participate in a fitness-improvement program with one-on-one fitness counseling. These Airmen have 90 days to retest. In some instances where physical limitations prevent running, cycle ergometry can still be used along with a combination of push-ups and sit-ups.
Airmen in Alaska face challenges not found at most bases. At Eielson AFB, it is a challenge to combine the new fitness test with long Alaskan winters where temperatures dip to minus 30 or lower, said Dana Baugh, an exercise physiologist who oversees the testing.
After a winter of exercising primarily indoors, making the transition from a treadmill to the outdoor track used for testing can be difficult for some, Ms. Baugh said. Other factors for northern-tier Airmen include a tendency for some to gain weight while cooped up during winter, and the mental aspect of coping with prolonged darkness.
These Airmen also face a narrower window of opportunity to take their test, which means juggling test dates around deployments, exercises and summer leave.
Eielson only tests outdoors from about mid-May through September at a local high-school track. However, the extra effort is worth it at northern-tier bases because exercise can help battle the wintertime blahs, Ms. Baugh said. It also improves long-term health that is beneficial to the individual and the Air Force.
It can also provide short-term benefits. At Elmendorf, Airmen beating the commander’s test time by a 10-percent margin win a day off. The unit with the best composite score can take $10,000 back to the office to use toward operations and maintenance projects. The second and third place units also receive monetary awards totaling more than $15,000. But Airmen there hardly have to be sold on the new program.
“At Elmendorf, it’s been embraced as part of the culture and mission,” Ms. Kelter said. And not just by servicemembers. Family members with baby buggies turn out at the local track to join Airmen doing physical training both mornings and afternoons.
Fit to fight also has been embraced by 52nd Comptroller Squadron Airmen at Spangdahlem AB, Germany. These finance troops have won bragging rights for earning the commander’s iron flight unit fitness award three consecutive months.
They have also done very well on the test individually. Out of 30 people Tech. Sgt. Cheryl Wiggins has tested, 29 scored good or excellent. It was not by coincidence. The comptrollers are out three days a week doing group physical training -- even in the snow. They take a practice test every Thursday, so when test time rolls around, there are few surprises.
Some grumbled in the beginning when they turned out for group training, but Sergeant Wiggins said a sense of camaraderie has developed over time.
It has also been a good way of getting the workaholics out of the office who would otherwise keep their noses to the grindstone, said Staff Sgt. Mary Anne Reyes, also of the comptroller squadron. But office work does not necessarily end when the workout begins, Major Harback said.
“Sometimes I get more business done on the two-mile run than the whole day,” she said.
Physical training is serious business to Sergeant Reyes, who used to feel guilty about taking time out for the gym at lunchtime at her previous base where she was the only one in her office who exercised. She was thrilled to see physical training become part of the workday, especially when her husband deployed for a remote tour to South Korea, leaving her with two children to tend.
“That was my lifesaver,” she said. She has added workouts at home as well, where her daughter does push-ups and sit-ups with her. Her husband, Staff Sgt. Rodolfo Reyes, may feel more reluctant to join in. She scored 97.5 on her fitness test and can crank out 64 push-ups compared to his 55.
But he does not mind, she said, because he has learned that when his wife works out, she is happier, and therefore “nicer to him,” she said.