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.”