Don’t sacrifice physically fit troops to military ‘tape test’

The News Tribune The News TribuneNovember 4, 2013 

Skin-fold calipers are more accurate at determining body fat than the “tape test.”

PAUL RODRIGUEZ/MCT

For military men and women, the tale of the tape can be the difference between being able to stay in the service or being forced out.

Little wonder then that at a time when the military is trimming its ranks that an increasing number of service members are resorting to liposuction — on their own dime — to avoid failing the Defense Department’s body fat “tape test” and being sent to a vigorous fitness program. (The Marines have dubbed the program the “doughnut brigade” or “pork chop platoon.”)

Failing the body fat test even once can put a black mark on a career and delay promotions. Failing it three times can lead to discharge.

It’s happening more and more. Ten times more Army soldiers were kicked out of the service this year (1,815) for failing the test than in 2008 (168). The Marines Corps’ figures rose from 102 in 2010 to 186 in 2011, but its trend might be reversing — down to 132 in 2012. According to the Army Times, more than 1,300 airmen were discharged in 2012 for failing to meet service fitness standards.

Most of us in the civilian world don’t have to worry about losing our jobs if we pack on the pounds. But the military takes fitness seriously because an unfit soldier — too fat to fight, so to speak — can be an obstacle to readiness. Picture a squad out on patrol having to wait around for a corpulent corporal to catch up or shoehorning a pudgy pilot into a jet cockpit.

The problem some fitness experts see, however, is that a one-size-fits-all approach to determining fitness might not always accurately reflect a person’s combat readiness. They argue that the Defense Department’s tape test, which uses neck and waist measurements instead of body mass index, weeds out people who may be bulky but muscular.

Some folks are naturally built like fire plugs — with thick necks and nonexistent waists. Genetics shouldn’t disqualify them from service if they can show that they are physically fit and up to the demands of their jobs.

Earlier this year the Army Times did tape tests on 10 active-duty troops in the Puget Sound area and then had them undergo hydrostatic “dunk tank” tests — considered the most accurate way to determine body fat composition. In all 10 cases, the tape test was wrong — often dramatically so. In nine cases, the tape test measured troops’ body fat higher than it really was, with the error rate ranging from a low of 12 percent to an astounding 66 percent.

The tape test said that the very fit-looking Staff Sgt. Rich McIntosh of Joint Base Lewis-McChord had a body fat index of 17 percent. “There’s no way I’m that Fatty McFatfat,” he told the Army Times. He was right. The dunk tank results put his index at just under 11 percent — more than a 35 percent difference.

According to a sports science professor interviewed by The Associated Press, a more accurate way to gauge body fat than the tape test is to use calipers to measure the skin’s thickness at three different parts of the body.

The Air Force made the right move last month by changing its policy on discharges. Airmen who fail the tape test but pass physical fitness exams can be measured using the body mass index. That seems like a fairer way to evaluate service members’ fitness for duty than the overly simplistic tape test. The other branches should take note.

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