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Under the guise of fitness, they slather on heat rub or hemorrhoid cream, cocoon themselves in plastic wrap and get dehydrated sitting in saunas or steam baths. Some even go under the knife or have other surgical procedures.
It’s what airmen have been doing to pass the abdominal circumference portion of the fitness test.
Jon Stock, spokesman for the Air Force Surgeon General Office, said the practice of “sweating weight off” by wearing rubber suits and through body wraps can be dangerous because it forces the body to dehydrate.
While there is no prohibition in Air Force fitness policy against taking such measures, Stock said a dehydrated body doesn’t perform well, and the Air Force Surgeon General’s Office does not support airmen using such mechanisms to pass their PT test.
But Ben Gleason, a former military fitness program liaison for Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., said airmen are regularly wrapping and dehydrating their bodies to cheat the system. And it is cheating, he said, as is sucking in your stomach before being taped.
“Airmen have been getting away with doing that for some time,” he said. “Most of the airmen who did it smelled suspiciously like some kind of heat rub and we found neoprene wraps in the garbage about once a month.”
Gleason said airmen wouldn’t have to cheat if the Air Force did away with the measurement, which he said isn’t the most accurate way to measure body fat or fitness.
“You can probably argue that it’s not healthy to throw a number at someone and say, ‘This is an unreliable measurement, [but] you have to pass it or we’re going to kick you out of the service’, if you don’t have the quality fitness program that will get them in the condition physically they’re supposed to be in,” he said.
Gleason said if the service is going to keep measuring body composition and tying peoples’ careers to it, a better way to do the measurements would be to use the body composition tracking systems, known as Bod Pods, that many Air Force Health and Wellness Centers already have, but the Air Force has been unwilling to spend its scarce resources on such instruments.
Dr. Arya Sharma, chairman of obesity research and management at the University of Alberta, said using the abdominal circumference to measure health and fitness in individuals is tricky. While it can indicate a person is carrying dangerous fat in their midsection that could lead to problems such as heart disease and diabetes, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
“It’s a good screening tool,” he said of the measurement. “I would certainly take a second look at the people who have waist circumferences over 39.”
But some people with waist circumferences greater than 39 inches can be healthy, Sharma added.
The sumo wrestler is a classic example of a person who would likely be considered obese on paper, but is actually physically fit, he said. Because the sumo wrestler’s body fat is underneath the skin and not concentrated in the abdomen, he usually doesn’t have any of the health problems associated with his size.
Sharma said there are many reasons why airmen aren’t losing weight even if they’ve stepped up their exercise regimen.
“Body weight ultimately depends far more on the number of calories you eat than what you burn with exercise,” he said. “When people have jobs like those in the military — jobs with lots of stress, lots of shift work — you could be not getting enough sleep and there is a lot of emotional stress.
“All those factors are going to affect eating, whether it be emotional eating, or not taking enough time to eat, which can cause overeating,” he said. “To think of exercise as the solution is nonsense.”