From the archive: this story was originally published June, 5, 2014.
Turns out, the Air Force might have been right about the waist measurement portion of the PT test all along.
Six months after the service changed the rules for the waist measurement portion of the PT test to give airmen with thick middles a second chance to pass — by having their body mass index and body fat measured — not one airman has qualified, according to data provided by the Air Force.
The new PT rule was the result of an eight-month study into the tape test, called the abdominal circumference by the Air Force, amid outcry from airmen that the test unfairly targeted large-boned people and didn't take into account height and age. Some airmen said they were physically fit and could pass the 1.5-mile run, situp and pushup portions of the test, but could not meet the waist maximums of 39 inches for men and 35.5 for women.
Many airmen said they hoped Air Force leaders would ditch the tape test altogether. The size of one's waist, they said, should not have career-ending consequences. But fitness leaders held fast to their contention that airmen whose waists exceeded the maximums were unlikely to pass the other three components of the test, a requirement to be sent for a BMI screening.
They can now back it up with numbers: Even though no airmen have been sent for a BMI screen, the pass rate for the waist measurement is 93 percent — 3 percent higher than it was from October 2010 through March 2013.
Neal Baumgartner, the exercise physiology and fitness consultant to the Air Force and program director for fitness at Air Education and Training Command, said that with no airmen in line to take the alternative test, it shows the Air Force's strength in the tape test because it proves the waist measurement is still doing the job.
"It's extremely rare — for males with a waist circumference higher than 39, and for females higher than 36 — to do very well on most any other physical fitness test, but we are giving airmen that opportunity, that slim slim chance, but with the odds of that happening, we know it's extremely slim," Baumgartner said. "Scientific data, both outside and inside the military, shows that the higher your abdominal circumference, the slower your run time, and vice versa," he said.
There's no plan to change the BMI maximum of 25, regardless of gender or age, or the body fat limit of 18 percent for men and 26 percent for women, said Lt. Col. Ernie Mata, chief, promotions, evaluations and fitness policy.
"It was added to not be used on a regular basis ... we knew it would be a very small percentage of people who would get to use it," Mata told Air Force Times. "We'll continue to look at all aspects of the [test] as we move forward, but it's up to leadership to decide based off the statistical data how they want to proceed."
Biggest challenge: The run
The overall pass rate for active-duty Air National Guard and reserve airmen was 86 percent — or 90 percent if waivers aren't counted — from Oct. 21 through April 30. The pass rate has hovered around 90 percent for the past few years and spiked to 94 percent at the end of 2012.
And while the waist measurement is, by far, the PT test component with the highest pass rate, the highest fail rate is for the 1.5-mile run, or alternatively, the 2-kilometer walk. The run counts for 60 percent of the test, while situps and pushup are 10 percent each and the waist tape the remaining 20 percent.
Since October, the pass rate has dropped to 70 percent for the aerobic portion of the test, compared with a 75 percent pass rate since the test was updated in 2010. Of the 350,289 tests taken by active-duty, Air National Guard and reserve airmen from Oct. 21 through April 30, 5 percent — or 17,514 — resulted in a failure for the run. Another 25 percent of test takers — nearly 87,572 — were exempt from the aerobic portion, primarily for medical reasons.
Baumgartner said airmen should maintain their workouts throughout the year so they are ready for the run at test time. And a better score on the run can help airmen whose scores for their waist measurement are on the lower end of the passing range.
The same can be applied to airmen's lives.
"You can mitigate some of that additional fat by having higher aerobic fitness," Baumgartner said. "[The test] is to encourage them to think, 'What are you doing the other 363 days of the year?' Because we want them to carry out a healthy lifestyle with exercise and balanced nutrition."
If you can't run, make an effort to "go as fast as possible" on your walk test to show an effort toward staying fit for duty, Baumgartner said.
In October, the Air Force eliminated the complicated calculation called VO2 max, which factors weight, age, gender, heart rate and walk time because the formula was confusing for airmen, and leadership wanted a simpler test, Baumgartner said. Now airmen who are exempt from the run must walk 2 kilometers and meet the minimum time for their age group. They do not receive a point score, they receive either a pass or fail.
Some airmen applauded the change. Others said cardio work deserves a point value to help boost the overall PT test score.
"[The Air Force's] biggest mistake was making the walk a pass or fail score," a reader posted on Air Force Times' FlightLines blog. "Taking a point value from a cardio portion of the test leads to more failures of members recovering from an injury who are reasonably trying to participate in what they can physically."
Airmen who once scored in the 80s on the 100-point test now fail because they are only receiving scores for three of the four components, she said.
Waivers: A handout?
Overall, the number of waivers handed out to airmen who must skip taking the entire test was 6 percent, or 18,463 test takers, from Oct. 21 through April 30, according to the Air Force's data. But waivers for individual components range from 25 percent for the run test, to 16 percent for the pushups and situps, to 6 percent for waist measurement.
Some airmen have complained that the waivers are handed out too easily, and that slackers know they can escape the test by complaining about a sore back or knee the week of their scheduled test.
In previous years, the numbers were even higher: In October 2011, 14 percent of test takers received waivers.
The numbers started to come down in May 2012. At the time, the Air Force Surgeon General's office attributed the decline to airmen being in better shape and less prone to injury.
Mata said the waivers, referred to as profiles, are handed out by the Air Force's medical team for legitimate reasons.
"It's pregnancies, deployments — there are multiple reasons as to why somebody can be exempt at any one given time, and we're not going to tell a doctor how to do their job," he said. "If somebody's injured and can't take the test, what we don't want to do is hurt airmen more."
But some airmen disagree.
"The PT test is fine if individuals actually take all components of it," wrote Robert Earl Payne on the Air Force Times Facebook page. "The problem lies in the med group where profiles are handed out like candy to anyone that walks in the door ... The individual needs to have some integrity by not going to the clinic in the first place, but it also falls on the doctors to send people right back out the door. Give them a profile for lack of heart instead of a hurt toe nail," Payne said.
'You have answers' to the test
Mata said help is available for airmen who continue to struggle with the PT.
"Not only are you given medical support, the Health Awareness Center, there's different avenues for them to get better and time provided to conduct fitness assessments, and get the training they need prior to taking the next test. We want the airmen to pass, and there's a lot of support out there for them," he said.
The Air Force's message is clear: Airmen have the individual responsibility to get fit and stay fit.
"There's no science to it, there's no secret to it, we tell you, 'Here's what you need to do,' since day one," Mata said.