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A United States Military Branch is Ending PT Tests

Brian “BK” Kimber

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Quick, without googling, which branch do you think is embarking on this bold new strategy? As someone who has been the butt of countless “Chair Force” jokes, let me state unequivocally that it is NOT my beloved USAF. Nor is it the Coast Guard, which, despite popular military opinion, is indeed a branch of the US military. No, the answer is the branch that you may have either forgotten exists or never knew existed in the first place; the United States SPACE FORCE!

That’s right, the newest branch of the military that has been in existence for roughly 14 minutes has taken a look at their physical fitness requirements and decided that it was way too simple and have chosen to implement some nonsensical plan using fitness trackers instead. But before I get into that, some background.

The Space Force, having basically pulled personnel from the USAF, had until now been using the Air Force’s standard PT test for non-SOF personnel. The brutally hard Air Force PT test consisted of the following hellish events:

  • Max pushups in 2 minutes
  • Max situps in 2 minutes
  • 1.5 mile run

(Side note: The Air Force has recently decided that these events could also be too hard and has allowed personnel to choose to substitute the original three events with alternates: A 20 meter shuttle run instead of the 1.5 mile, “hand release pushups,” whatever those are, and planks instead of sit-ups.)

Back to the fitness trackers. The Space Force thought that the ease of gathering a big squadron together and knocking out the entire annual PT test for an entire squadron in about an hour with fitness scores immediately available was just too convenient for everyone and has gone with a plan on fitting fitness trackers on all of their personnel. Let’s take a look at the story NPR did on this tomfoolery:

NPR begins with this:

Members of the Space Force, called Guardians, won’t have an annual test. Instead, they will get smart rings or other wearable fitness devices to keep track of their physical activity throughout the year. The devices also will be programmed to give feedback about mental health, balanced eating and sleep.

First, let’s start with the obvious problem of privacy. These devices that the Space Force personnel will be required to wear will be measuring various data on the members 24/7, not just at work. You really want your boss to know about what you’re doing on your personal time? That alone would be a giant no-go for me, although perhaps now that everyone is Very Online, it won’t have the stigma that it used to have even ten years ago. But there are so many questions that I had about the data itself. What data is measured? What brand of fitness tracker? Who receives the data? What officers and NCOs will have access to the data? How is measuring sleep an indication on how well a member can perform physically? How many personnel will it take and how many man hours will be devoted to poring over reams of data collected on members? What would be considered “failure?” What consequences will there be for this “failure?”

Those are just the beginning of my questions, none of which were answered in the NPR article. If you know my constant irritation with today’s media, this is hardly an unusual complaint. But let’s continue.

The article goes on to say this:

U.S. Space Force leadership says the approach will prioritize the general wellness of service members beyond just one physical assessment each year. The annual tests have spurred eating disorder symptoms and other unhealthy behaviors in some military members.

“This program will promote not just physical fitness; it will pair fitness with robust education on diet, sleep hygiene and other physiological factors to promote social, mental and spiritual health as well,” wrote Patricia Mulcahy, the Space Force deputy chief of space operations for personnel, in a memo.

“Sleep hygiene?” “Spiritual Health?” These are nonsensical phrases written by someone who is trying to be a politician or something; the preferred tactic to obfuscate one’s intentions is to always use jargon instead of plain talk. I actually went and looked up Ms. Patricia:

All due respect to Ms. Mulcahy, but I do not believe a 64 year old should be in charge of physical fitness standards; I don’t care if you’re male OR female. Her bio states she retired as a Colonel in the US Army, so presumably she’s taken a few Army PT tests in her time. Why she now thinks a wearable fitness tracker can take the place of an individual’s ability to perform basic physical fitness tests is beyond me. (However, I have noticed that once someone acquires a cushy job in the federal government with no fear of being fired, their brains generally turn into mush.)

I think everyone knows the following is common sense: When one desires to become stronger at the gym, who do they seek out for advice? The ridiculously jacked/tan bro repping out 400 lbs on the bench press, or the stringbean curling the five pound dumbbells? When one wants to become a better swimmer, do you ask the high school girl’s state champion swimmer (as I did!) or the old ladies in the aquasize class? When you want to become a Navy SEAL do you ask the guy who failed out of BUDs or do you buy Stew Smith’s books? It’s obvious; you ask the person who clearly demonstrates they’ve succeeded in the same goals you have, knows what they are doing, and how to get you there.

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When I was with the PJ teams, a tremendous motivator to keep on top of your physical fitness was shame. We, as grown men, were on our own to PT every day as we saw fit. However, you never knew when the Chief decided he’d like to go on a a little “fun” team run. (Those “fun” runs inevitably devolved into 7 min/mile long-ass death runs; they were never “fun.”) And if you couldn’t keep up with the senior NCOs? That was going to be merciless mocking and ridicule until you tightened your shit up. But not to worry, according to the Space Force, shaming will still be a thing:

The Space Force has been testing Garmin watches and Oura rings for its program. It also plans a digital community where Guardians can see data from their own fitness trackers and compare it to their peers.

I see. But what are they going to compare, sleep pattens and caloric intake? NONE OF THIS DETERMINES YOUR PHYSICAL FITNESS ABILITIES.

The company that is building this online community is something called FitRankings. Their CEO chimed in to NPR with some great gibberish:

“Maybe you’re not good at running, maybe you’re not good at pullups,” said FitRankings CEO Patrick Hitchins. “There is some amount of dimensionality to these tests that favors one activity form over another.”

First of all, pull-ups are sadly not even in the current Space Force PT test; one can only imaging the legions of failures SpaFor would have if they had DARED include them. (Everyone remembers the infamous “leg tuck” fiasco, right?) Second, that is some admirable buzz-wording: “amount of dimensionality???” What in the wide world of sports does that even mean? Then he goes on to claim that really, anything other than sleeping will count as exercise; they’ll just “convert” it:

“Guardians could do any type of activity,” Hitchins said. “We could convert it into this metric and then create a culture-building, community-engaging challenge around that data.”

Great, except just because you can walk two miles doesn’t mean you can RUN two miles. Just because you did 12 ounce curls at the local happy hour doesn’t mean you can do a pushup. These activities do not convert. I really despise this new idea among the non-jacked that any calorie-burning activity is equivalent to another.

Then there was this gem from the current senior enlisted leader for the Force’s Space Training and Readiness Command, Chief Master Sgt. James Seballes, who seems to think as long as you get a good night’s sleep, you’re physically fit:

Bratton said leaders want to emphasize health beyond physical activity so that Guardians are prepared to execute what their service requires.

“Many times fitness is used as a ‘go, no-go’ kind of thing — either you have it or you don’t,” Seballes said. “I know folks who can do all of their PT aspects and run a really fast mile and a half, and yet their eating habits are poor, their sleeping habits are poor. They’re not healthy.”

Bro, what??? “Their sleeping habits are poor?” Guy, have you actually been in the US military? I don’t think I got a good night’s sleep in 6 years. And yes, I’d prefer the guy who can run a really fast mile and a half who stayed up all night pounding Red Bull vodkas than the guy who slept for 10 hours blissfully and can’t walk a mile without stopping for donuts.

Finally, there’s zero proof that this will even work as intended. The school of thinking in Space Force seems to be that once members are fitted with their tracking devices… er, fitness hardware, that they will be mindful of it at all times and adjust their lifestyles accordingly. So when the portly E-7 is about to crush his seventh sour cream and carne asada taco on Taco Tuesday, as they’re pushing the deliciousness into their gaping maw, they’ll glance at their wrist, see the fitness tracker, and be all, “Nope, NOT TODAY.” Except that probably won’t be the case, as the NPR article admits:

Elizabeth Eikey’s research touches on that topic. An assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego’s Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health, she studies how technology, like fitness trackers and apps, affects mental health and well-being.

“For a long time the idea was more engagement with these tools — the more consistent you are, the longer that you use them — the more healthy you will be,” Eikey said. “But what we’re finding is that’s not necessarily true.”

Yep. Humans tend to adapt to their environments pretty quickly. Think basic training, or prison: They’re pretty scary for the first few days and then you kind of just get used to it.

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One quick other point I wanted to make: I am not saying that everyone in the military has to be at some crazy PT standard. As a matter of fact, I’ve said often that we should tailor PT requirements to different jobs. Let’s take my earlier example of the Air Force PT test. When I was still in, I had to take the annual USAF PT test as described earlier. However, I also had to take the AFSOC PT test once a year, which was juuuuuuuust a bit tougher; one of the toughest annual PT tests in the military. The old AFSOC test was:

  • 3 mile run
  • pushups 2 mins
  • situps 2 mins
  • pullups
  • 1500 meter swim

It was a gasser. And like I mentioned before, the peer pressure to excel in that test was intense. God forbid you, as an E-4 brand new out of the schoolhouse and new to the team ran that 3 mile in over 21 minutes; the teammates would bring it up CONSTANTLY. Oh, and just for education purposes, the annual AFSOC PT test has changed; it is now:

  • 3-mile ruck march with the ruck weighing over 60 pounds
  • Standing long jump
  • Pro agility run
  • Trap bar deadlift
  • Pull-ups
  • Farmer’s carry for 100 yards
  • Shuttle run for 300 yards
  • 1,500-meter fin swim

Those events are all graded by time/reps, so maxing it is still a suckfest.

The point is, I’ve never seen a reason for the guy who works the front desk at base lodging to have the same PT requirements as a PJ, or the dude who puts gas in the helicopters to have the same PT requirements as a SEAL. And we are talking about Space Force after all; not like you’re going to have guys fast-roping onto the moon or something. But it IS still the United States military, no?

Should we not demand physical and mental excellence from our members? To me, being physically fit is part of our military bearing. It absolutely disgusted me whenever I saw some SLOB in in a military uniform. I know we are undergoing an unprecedented recruiting crisis but that is zero excuse for low physical standards. Plus, in this day and age of unconventional warfare and joint operations, who knows what personnel will be suddenly attached to a SOF unit for their unique expertise in, say, cyber operations or forensic examination? Ya think you should be able to keep up if the team has to make a hasty dismount under duress???

And this fitness tracking plan is complete nonsense, it will never work, and, in my opinion, is just a way for Space Force to excuse having obese personnel be able to stay on the job so they can have positive manning reports. Or, alternatively, perhaps they’re afraid their fat senior NCOs would be caught bribing the PT proctors; not that THAT ever happens or anything. 

On final thought: For God’s sake… hire ONLY jacked and tan personnel to advise you on combat fitness.

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author

Brian “BK” Kimber

Content Producer, VET Tv

BK is the host of the popular international news podcast, “World News with BK,” now with almost 300 weekly episodes. A military veteran, BK served in the elite United States Air Force Pararescue (PJ) teams. He is a graduate of some of the military’s toughest schools, among them the USAF Pararescue indoctrination course, US Army Special Forces Combat Diver Qualification course, the USAF Pararescue Medical course, and the US Army Military Freefall (HALO) school.

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