Tags: Body Composition Assessment, JD Kristenson
The weigh-in/body composition assessment (BCA) portion of the Navy’s physical fitness test (PRT) is in need of a change.
The height-weight tables are based on standards from the insurance industry that are out-of-date and no longer appropriate to assess the fitness of a contemporary military population—if they ever were. The current standards remain in place mainly because they are straightforward enough to allow many collateral duty physical fitness coordinators throughout the fleet to reliably administer them. What is often overlooked is the fact that precision (in this case, ease of replication) is not the same as accuracy.
It can be assumed that nearly everyone wants a force that can safely perform the tasks asked of them and also looks sharp in uniform. The Navy’s physical fitness portion of the assessment is divorced from occupational requirements and flawed in its own right, but I intend to talk about here about the more-overlooked BCA.
The Navy is a sea-going force and that presents unique challenges to physical fitness that the Navy prefers to ignore. While it is true that the physical fitness portion of the test can be waived for deployment or operations, the instruction is very specific that BCA cannot be waived. This serves to hold Sailors accountable for an area that they sometimes have very little control over. In addition to the real, physical consequences of rotating shift work on metabolism, there are often very limited healthy food options underway. Opportunities to work out can be similarly limited. While there might be a few functioning treadmills onboard, running in rough seas can be very difficult, even unsafe. The increasing length of deployments only exacerbates this problem. While Sailors may no longer be at high risk for scurvy, eight, nine, or even ten months at sea is still a long time and the toll it takes on one’s body is undeniably.
On a personal note, I was a three-sport athlete at one of the top NCAA Division I athletic programs. Under the Navy’s system, for the first fifteen years of my career, I have always been on the border of being judged to be out of standards. There is no way that I could ever make my maximum Navy body weight. I go into each PRT cycle knowing that I will have to undergo the ‘rope and choke.” There are many dimensions of fitness that are not captured by the Navy’s system. What the Navy is asking of people like me under the current system is not to become more fit, but rather to mold my body into a shape that more closely resembles their normative model.
As one who has spent my entire career on this borderline, when I am young and fit, I live with a sense of dread of what may happen if I were to sustain an injury that prevents me from working out or even the somewhat natural loss of muscle mass that can be expected as one ages. The Sailors with the most to lose are the career Sailors that have dedicated their most productive working years to the organization and are working towards retirement. It is these Sailors that also have the greatest incentive to go to extreme—even unsafe—measures to preserve their careers and to prevent getting kicked out.
The standards themselves need to be reviewed—the ‘waist-minus-the-neck’ method is a guesstimate at best. We cannot continue to have such severe consequences (discharge from service) applied to those whose genuine body composition (and by extension their physical fitness) is being approximated. What is the answer then for a Navy that still needs a standard that can be easily administered at the command level throughout the fleet? There needs to be recourse for those Sailors that do not meet the current, approximated BCA tables. Sailors who fail the tape measured BCA should be afforded the opportunity of a more accurate method (7-site caliper, electrostatic impedance, immersion, etc.) at a base medical facility. The costs of adding this option would be manifestly less than recruiting, assessing, training and then dismissing the otherwise good Sailors left behind under the current system.
I understand that Sailors that can fail the BCA and still score an outstanding on the PRT are truly rare, but that does not mean that outliers should be driven out of the service because they do not fit within an arbitrary model.