The US Air Force is fighting back against the COVID “sprawl” with a fresh approach to physical fitness. How about this: choose your own PT test?

All branches of the military have some sort of physical fitness requirements. The Marines incorporate a lot of running and weight-bearing into their programs. The Navy features planks and swimming. Or rowing. Or running. Or something. The Army is closest to the Air Force program, with run, crunches, and push-ups. Until now, that is.

US Air Force Airmen have been without a department-wide PT program since COVID moved in, put its feet up, cracked a beer, and said, “I ain’t leavin’!” With social distancing, masking, and facility closures, the Department of the Air Force decided physical fitness testing could take a back seat to readiness. Airmen have spent the last year working out on their own (yeah, right), as part of local squadron programs, or saying, “Yes, I will have that jelly doughnut, thank you very much.”

Way back in the dark ages (the late-90s), basic training consisted of running when I joined. That’s what it seemed like, anyway. Due to an inept guidon bearer, my flight double-timed to every destination from week two through the end. We ran in formation, in pairs, upstairs and down hills, on sidewalks, streets, grass, and sand. We ran with TIs screaming at us, other trainees, and even with each other screaming at us. It was all very confusing. When I reached my first duty station, though, I was put on a bike.

Members of the Wolf Pack warm-up for a spin class at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, April 16, 2014. Spin class is offered four times a week at the Wolf Pack Fitness Center. (US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Clayton Lenhardt/Released)

For some reason, Air Force leadership in the 1990s decided aerobic fitness could best be measured using a stationary bike and heart rate. Record a resting heart rate, then record the increase as you pedaled and added more tension to the bike. The problem was, resting heart rate was subjective, and the heart rate was only recorded at the top of the minute. Once I realized that I could score 100% all day long by holding my breath at the 50-second mark. Heart rate drops due to oxygen saturation, and I put up marathoner numbers on my tests. I still smoked a pack of smokes a day, still ate cinnamon rolls for breakfast and bacon cheeseburgers for lunch, still put up marathoner numbers.

In 2004, Air Force leadership decided we all should be able to run. The 1.5-mile run was back, and it was back to stay this time. I am not a runner. I believe it has already been established; I am a bacon-cheeseburger eater. When they told me I had to run, I cried, but I ran. I ran for years until those knees halfway down my legs decided they were tired of that whole “cartilage” thing and decided to rip it up and throw it out. For years we had been friends. Those knees supported me, man, through everything. Why did they betray me?

Bone-on-bone knee joints do not make for favorable running conditions, so I was granted a waiver to walk instead. Most people hear walk and assume a stroll in the park. While it often occurred in some sort of park, it wasn’t a fun stroll. The requirements for me (middle-aged dude) were 16 minutes, 18 seconds to complete two kilometers. Sixteen minutes is plenty of time. I hear a lot of you saying. The minimum pace to meet this requirement is 4.6 miles per hour. I challenge anyone to hop on a treadmill, set the pace to 4.6, and see how fast it actually is. One foot has to always touch the ground throughout, so light jogging is right out. I’ve been failed for that a few times.

Updates to the fitness program rolling out in 2022 include options for aerobic fitness. Airmen now have the opportunity to “choose their own adventure” when it comes to PT testing. Aerobic fitness will now be measured by the 1.5-mile run, one-mile speed walk, or a 20-meter shuttle run. My knees ache just typing the words “shuttle run.”

Part of me wants to react like any crusty old retired guy: Look at these young whipper-snappers and their options! Why, back in my day, we crawled across the bones of our enemies, climbed our friends’ broken dreams, and slew fire-breathing SNCOs to pass PT tests. It made us tougher and fueled our raging nicotine and energy-drink addictions. The times, though, are changing.

For once, I am happy for these new airmen. Everyone in uniform should have a better physical fitness level than the average bear. Being in shape is a lot more than looking professional in a uniform. It can mean the difference between being fully staffed and being down a guy because he’s hurt. With manning numbers constantly in flux due to COVID right now, the more healthy the force, the more likely they can respond to threats and taskings around the globe.

Offering Airmen options for fitness is one way the Air Force is responding to the changing landscapes. Push-ups and sit-ups are still on the menu, the same as the run. New offerings include hand-release push-ups, cross-legged crunches, and planks to measure core strength. Anyone who has planked for more than a minute or so knows how to stop time, but some seem to enjoy it. The waist measurement has gone by the wayside, at least as far as scoring. Gone are the days a 35-inch waist guarantees a perfect score on the abdominal circumference component. That was always a score-getter for me; this guy is blessed with the right metabolism.

Senior Airman Eddie Castillo, 433rd Force Support Squadron services journeyman, advises Senior Airman Joseph Sosa, 433rd Logistics Readiness Squadron ramp representative, during his physical fitness assessment July 10, 2021, at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, while Staff Sgt. Sean Harein, a 433rd Logistics Readiness Squadron log planner, counts repetitions. (US Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Samantha Mathison)

Another positive for the fitness program is the option to perform a diagnostic test. In the past, practice tests administered by fitness assessment cell personnel were officially recorded, and scores could be used against a person. There was no option to do mock tests with officials that did not come with an official score. A really good way to accidentally fail a test and receive the paperwork. Now, diagnostic tests can be done, and passing scores can be input, while failed tests can be retaken, as long as the member is not overdue. Making these types of tests available help Airmen know their “official” fitness level without the fear of failures and adverse personnel actions.

Every day the news brings some new horror, some group or other is offended, or you should believe this politician over this other one. Things are constantly changing is the point. Since it split from the Army, the Air Force has made dozens of changes to its fitness requirements. Some of these changes have benefitted Airmen, some have benefitted the AF through force-shaping, and some have just made us scratch our heads. These newest changes have me stroking my chin, saying, “Hmmm… Giving them options on staying fit to fight? That just might work.”