Juli Phelps, an exercise physiologist from Grissom Air Reserve Base, Ind., demonstrates how to use a tape measure on Airman 1st Class Shirell Cummings, 931st Security Forces Squadron, to measure waist circumference during a physical training leader certification class at McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., last year. (1st Lt. Zach Anderson / Air Force)
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Expect a decision soon about whether waist measurements should be part of your PT test, said Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody.
“In the next few days, we will be releasing what the changes to the program will be,” said Cody, who could not yet discuss what those changes will be.
Airmen have long complained that they can pass every component of the PT test except for the tape test, causing some to try drastic and dangerous measures to meet the service’s waist circumference limit of 39 inches for men and 35.5 inches for women.
That prompted the Air Force to launch a review into whether the tape test or some other form of health assessment should be separate from the PT test. The review is complete and in the final stage of staffing, Cody said in a July 23 interview.
“Even though we have some changes to announce, and we will, we are finalizing the phase of when those changes go into effect,” Cody said.
In February, Cody told Air Force Times that he expected a decision on the tape test in July.
That time line has not changed even though there is not much of July left, Cody said in his most recent interview.
“It’s still due this month, and we’re trying to hold ourselves to that,” he said. “When I spoke to the chief [of staff], that’s exactly where we were.”
Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh is currently reviewing the recommendations and will make a final decision within the next few weeks, Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley said. Any changes that Welsh approves are expected to be implemented starting in October.
The Air Force’s argument for including waist measurements as part of the PT test has been that measuring the abdominal circumference is the best way to assess the risk of future health problems stemming from abdominal fat. The tape test is also a practical way to evaluate a large number of airmen.
But experts are divided about just how accurate a health indicator waist measurements are. Earlier this year, Military Times put 10 service members through hydrostatic “dunk” testing — considered the best way to measure body fat composition — and compared those results with tape testing. In nine out of 10 cases, the tape test measured the troops’ body fat percentage higher than the dunk testing.
However, the Air Force maintains that the abdominal fat — which bathes the liver in fatty acids — is a much better indicator of health risks including heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Airmen with a lot of fat concentrated in their belly could still have a lower overall percentage of body fat, Neal Baumgartner, who helped create the PT test that was introduced in 2010, said in May.
Still, airmen have complained that the tape test is unfair for people who are just built large, especially considering that failing the PT test can end an airman’s career. In March, the Air Force relieved Col. Tim Bush, who had an impeccable career, because his waist was measured at 41 inches.
“I’m always confident that I can pass situps, pushups and run,” Bush said at the time. “I never had a problem with that, but I’ve been a big guy all my life. I’m not a string bean, but I think I’m prepared to do what my Air Force and nation ask me to do; however, in this particular situation, I did not meet the standard, and so I have to step down as the commander.”
Airmen who are injured and cannot complete the entire PT test must meet even more stringent waist measurement standards, even if they can’t work out during their recovery.
Some airmen have resorted to dehydrating themselves, slathering themselves in hemorrhoid cream or even getting surgery to make the waist measurement requirements. A female technical sergeant at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., told Air Force Times earlier this year that she was afraid of having more children because of the tape test.
The airman, who did not want to be identified, said she failed her first PT test after her son was born eight years ago because she suffered from complications during her pregnancy, and the medications she took made her gain weight.
She now uses Preparation H, Saran Wrap, water pills and takes a long sauna to meet the waist measurement requirement.
“I never intended to have just one child,” she said. “I want to have more children, but I’m scared because I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m too far in my Air Force career, and I’ve worked too hard to get to this point.”
The process of measuring one’s abdominal circumference can be very arbitrary, Tech. Sgt. Daniel Tercero told Air Force Times last year. Once, he went to the fitness center on the Friday before taking his PT test to get his waist measured.
“The guy tapes me at a 41, and that really rocked my world a little bit,” Tercero said. “My actual test was a Monday. I go in to take my actual test and get taped at a 37.5. The point of that story is what if on some off chance the guy who taped me at a 41 had been giving me my actual test?”