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Studies reveal 11 ways to improve Army fitness

Sep. 2, 2014 - 06:14PM   |  
Power exercises, such as the bench press, are important for optimal military performance, researchers have found.
Power exercises, such as the bench press, are important for optimal military performance, researchers have found. (Staff Sgt. Richard Andrade / Army)
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The Army is working on a new app to measure soldier hydration, and it's called SWET. (Army)

A smaller force means more emphasis on soldiers doing their jobs at optimum levels — including the job of staying healthy.

There’s no shortage of programs to assist troops, but some of the more advanced health theories and techniques were on display at the 3rd International Congress on Soldiers’ Physical Performance, held Aug. 18-21 in Boston.

“Everybody has to be able to do their job and do it well, as we begin to reduce the number of soldiers in our Army,” said Marilyn Sharp, a senior investigator at the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, which hosted the conference. Sharp, a co-chair of the ICSPP, said her work in the institute’s military performance division is designed to help “place the best soldier in the right job, and in that way we will reduce injuries and optimize performance.”

Presenters from more than 20 countries attended the conference. Papers and presentations covered everything from the Army’s basic Performance Triad — which is geared toward helping soldiers and families understand proper nutrition, fitness and sleep habits — to methods armed forces can use to mitigate injury risk and better distribute the loads carried by soldiers in the field.

While the symposium gives researchers a chance to interact and forward their studies, the goal is to get these findings put into practice.

More than 270 posters, papers and symposiums were featured. Here are 11 quick-hits on the latest fitness, nutrition and injury research presented at the event, pulled from research overviews and abstracts in the event’s final program:

1. Get active, but don’t overdo it. A French study showed a decrease in working out away from the unit, post-deployment, could be a warning sign for stress-related problems. But service members who work out far beyond traditional amounts could be facing a behavioral addiction and may have anxiety issues.

2. Go high-tech — until you get bored. A full U.S. infantry battalion wore personal fitness devices as part of a test from September to March, with 146 soldiers taking part in a focus group with Army Public Health Command scientists after the program. The findings: Soldiers used the devices to measure their steps and track sleep habits, but eventually came to see them as “a ‘Big Brother’ tactic” and lost interest when “its novelty wore off or its use was mandated.”

3. Test your mettle — and metal. A joint U.S.-Israeli study showed that new recruits in both nations had incidents of low-iron levels on par with the general population, but “iron status declined significantly in response to training.” A study in the Israeli Defense Forces linked iron deficiency anemia to a higher risk of stress fractures. Researchers found success combating the deficiency via iron-fortified rations.

4. Learn to carry the load. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst ran marksmen through a series of tests bearing different load levels. They found large loads not only negatively affect a soldier’s “coordination between head and trunk,” but led to “a greater time requirement for object identification and, therefore, slower decision-making.

It was one of a number of studies addressing load-bearing concerns, including one that showed women carrying the heaviest gear in combat were at greatest risk for musculoskeletal injury.

While getting rid of gear may not be an option, Australia’s Nigel Taylor, an associate professor at the University of Wollongong’s School of Medicine, cited a presentation that said carrying a kilogram of weight on the foot, for example, is “eight times more metabolically inefficient” that carrying it on the chest.

5. It’s not all about the long run. A group of researchers from the University of Connecticut found a correlation between “power” measurements, including bench press and squat performances, and strong performances in a “combat relevant course” made up of a 30-meter sprint, a 27-meter zigzag and a 10-meter casualty drag. The researchers said the findings showed the “importance of strength and power training to optimize in high intensity military activities.”

6. Stay hydrated (There’s an app for that). Researchers, with the support of the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, have designed a new app meant to track soldiers’ water needs, accounting for a range of factors, including activity level, cloud cover and temperature. Aside from the practical applications, the best part of the as-yet-unavailable app may be its name: Soldier Water Estimation Tool, or SWET.

7. Be careful on the court. A study of U.S. troops evacuated for non-battle injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001-2012 showed 23 percent of those injuries came from sports and exercises — the largest identifiable category. Four activities led the list: basketball (24 percent), PT (19 percent), weightlifting (17 percent) and football (16 percent). Knees were the most commonly injured body part (29 percent), and sprains/strains were the most commonly reported injury (also 29 percent).

8. Don’t be a “desk warrior.” A group of German researchers gave soldiers in an administrative unit, a group they call “desk warriors,” the chance to participate in a yearlong pilot program that featured nutritional and fitness education, regular checkups and “special meals.” The good news: More than 9 in 10 participants expressed interest in future health programs, and many said the information helped their job performance and fitness levels. The bad news: Of those offered the program, less than half agreed to participate, and just 18 percent lasted until the final evaluation.

9. Get gender-specific? An Australian study found female recruits had more trouble improving their scores in a portion of the fitness test that involved lifting and carrying. The researcher’s conclusion: “Sex-specific applicant physical selection standards, at least for muscular strength, may be appropriate.”

A separate study of U.S. Marines found that “the primary limiting factor for females, in terms of reduced success on proxy tasks, is upper-body strength,” but noted that about 8 percent of the women scored high enough on events like artillery-round carries and tank-loading drills to meet “the demands of close combat operations.”

10. Go to the dogs. An Australian study found that of 21 observed tasks regularly performed by that nation’s air force security personnel, three of the five highest-exertion activities involved dog handling, including open-terrain tracking and building searches. Researchers said performance on the dog-handling tasks “will form the basis for developing valid and defensible employment standards” for such personnel.

11. Remember: Recovery can be hell. Members of the Norwegian special forces had their bench press, leg press and jump height measured before going through “Hell week,” which researchers described as being “in activity most of the time, only interspersed by 2-3 hours of sleep per day.” While other measurables, like body mass and hormone levels, bounced back within a week of the training, lower body muscles took the longest to recover, with leg press and jump stats still not back to pre-stress levels after two weeks.

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