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Official: Tape test would go away 'in a perfect world'

Sep. 23, 2013 - 08:38AM   |  
21st Century Sailor and Marine Initiative Arrives
Juan Garcia, the Navy's civilian manpower boss, conducts PT in 2012 at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti. Garcia said the tape test is an inferior test, but the dunk tank is too expensive. (MC3 Christopher Carson/Navy)
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About one-third of the Navy doesn't fall within the service's height and weight standards, triggering a dreaded tape test.

About one-third of the Navy doesn't fall within the service's height and weight standards, triggering a dreaded tape test.

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About one-third of the Navy doesn’t fall within the service’s height and weight standards, triggering a dreaded tape test.

Service members for years have criticized the accuracy of the tape, claiming it’s ruined careers and forced out good sailors.

In a May 20 cover story, Navy Times tested 10 service member subjects using the tape and then compared the results to more accurate “dunk tank” measurements. The findings showed the tape test gave a wrong measurement every time, adding some credibility to the complaints.

Now, even top Navy officials admit the tape is not the best measurement.

“We have wrestled with this for a long time,” said Juan Garcia, assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs. “Navy Fitness is continuing to pursue every option.”

Garcia endorsed the idea of using a dunk tank instead, saying that’s how the Navy would proceed “in a perfect world.” Experts describe it as “the most accurate,” Garcia said.

So with the manpower boss onboard, why aren’t sailors getting dunked?

It’s a matter of money.

“In an era of sequestration and austerity, it’s just not possible to put 320,000 enlisted sailors and officers through that right now,” Garcia said.

'Doesn't account for muscle'

Navy statistics released in June show that 109,902 sailors, or 30.2 percent of the force, didn’t meet the Navy’s height and weight chart standards and had to be taped during the spring 2013 physical fitness cycle. Of those, 7,792 ultimately failed the tape test, for a failure rate of about 7.1 percent for everyone who had to be taped. Personnel officials noted the data might be incomplete as commands had until June 30 to complete the physical fitness assessmentand the deadline for reporting the data was July 31.

While the tape failures are in the minority, just ask the 7,800 or so sailors what they think about the tape test. Undoubtedly, some physical readiness test studs fall in the group that couldn’t pass due to muscle mass or body shape — not because they were flabby.

“There are those outliers,” Garcia acknowledged. “Say that college linebacker who can ace the run, situp and pushup portion of the test, but their measurements are skewed when it comes to the BCA.”

And unlike the fitness test, which allows sailors to get one “do over” each cycle, sailors get one shot each cycle to pass the body compositioin assessment.

And if they fail the BCA, they automatically fail the whole cycle. Those who rack three failures in four years get an automatic ticket to civilian life.

Male sailors age 40 or younger are allowed 22 percent body fat; older men are allowed 23 percent. For women, limits are 33 percent under age 40 and 34 percent for the rest. That’s slightly lower than what the Department of Defense allows — 26 percent for men, 36 percent for women.

Navy personnel officials say there’s no current plan to alter either the Navy’s height and weight tables or eliminate the tape test in favor of other methods considered more accurate by scientific standards.

But that won’t stop sailors from criticizing it. They might take a page from fighting-mad Sgt. Jeff Smith. In the spring, he launched a White House petition calling to abolish the tape test. While his petition failed to gain traction, he hasn’t given up. He’s got the ear of at least one congressman and he’s also requested a chance to argue his case to top Marine leaders.

Putting the tape to the test, Navy Times got in on the act this spring, measuring 10 active-duty military stationed in the Pacific Northwest. The volunteers were first taped, and then put through a hydrostatic “dunk tank” testing — considered among the gold standards for determining actual body fat composition.

The results: Not once did our taping match the dunk test results. The tape test was wrong every time — and in nine out of 10 cases, the tape method measured troops’ body fat percentages higher. The worst was a 66 percent difference between the scores. The closest was still nearly 12 percent off.

Body-fat experts weren’t surprised by the findings. Regardless of method, top sports medicine researchers grade tape tests at the very bottom of the testing barrel.

“It’s ... awful for people who are very muscular,” says Dr. Jordan Moon, director of the Sports Science Center Research Institute in Denver. “The problem with the tape test is that it doesn’t account for muscle; it just accounts for size.”

Moon has published extensive research comparing all kinds of body fat measurement methods. In one 2008 study, Moon checked the accuracy of military body fat tests among college-age men in side-by-side comparisons against five other body fat tests.

His results: The military’s was among the worst, with far too wide a margin of error. “It can vary by as much 15 percent, plus or minus. So, if your results show you’re 20 percent fat, that means there’s a 95 percent chance that you’re really somewhere between 5 and 35 percent fat.”

Staff writers Jon Anderson and Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.

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