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Encore: A new branch of the military is taking a different approach to fitness


What would the U.S. military look like without its Annual Physical Fitness Test? Well, probably something like the Space Force, a service branch with a fitness tracker program. St. Louis Public Radio's Eric Schmid reports.

ERIC SCHMID, BYLINE: A handful of airmen gather on a six-lane track at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. They're about to start their one and a half-mile run. Each airman has to finish under a set time based on their age to pass this portion of the Air Force's fitness test.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So give me a thumbs-up whenever you guys are ready to go. Knock this out. Good, good, good. Good, good, good in the back. All right - cool. All right. All right - in three, two, one - begin.

SCHMID: Earlier in the morning, they completed the other parts of the fitness test.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Push-uppers (ph), ready up.

SCHMID: A minute of uninterrupted push-ups and later sit-ups.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Count out loud, guys.

SCHMID: This once-a-year assessment is how the Air Force measures if its airmen are physically ready for what their service requires. But the Space Force has a different approach to fitness. Members won't have an annual test. Instead, they'll get a smart ring or other wearable fitness device that will keep track of their physical activity throughout the year. Chief Master Sergeant James Seballes is a senior enlisted leader for Space Force's Training and Readiness Command.

JAMES SEBALLES: Our standards really haven't changed, right? We still are utilizing the Air Force PT standards. The difference is in our approach.

SCHMID: The Space Force has plans for a digital community for its troops, who are called guardians, where they can see data from their own device and how it compares to others in the service. Patrick Hitchins is the CEO of Austin-based FitRankings, the company building that platform for the Space Force. He says it allows guardians to count the activities they normally do, something that hasn't always been the case.

PATRICK HITCHINS: Maybe you're not good at running. Maybe you're not good at pull-ups. So there is, like, some amount of dimensionality to these tests that favors one activity form over another.

SCHMID: Seballes says the Space Force hopes this approach will turn fitness into more of a carrot than stick.

SEBALLES: Many times, fitness is almost used as, you know, a kind of a go, no-go kind of thing, right? You either have it or you don't. I've known folks that can do all their PT aspects and run, you know, a really fast mile and a half, but yet their eating habits are poor. Their sleeping habits are poor. They're not healthy.

SCHMID: On the question of health, research has also found that an annual test spurs some military members to engage in eating disorders and other unhealthy behavior. Lindsay Bodell is an assistant professor of psychology at Western University in Ontario.

LINDSAY BODELL: Having these consequences of not meeting the standards, then, may lead to people to engage in pretty extreme behaviors.

SCHMID: Space Force leadership hopes the data guardians get from their devices will help them take more ownership of their health. But Bodell cautions that switching to fitness monitors poses its own kinds of risks. Studies have pointed to links between eating disorder symptoms and fitness tracker use.

BODELL: Some of the negative consequences, I think, might just be kind of preoccupation with, like, certain exercise regimes or fixation on numbers, which could end up, you know, getting in the way of other activities.

SCHMID: Bodell says there needs to be more research on this topic as it relates to the military. Meanwhile, the Space Force plans to evaluate its fitness tracker program after a year to decide if it will become permanent. For NPR News, I'm Eric Schmid in St. Louis.


Eric Schmid