While the tape test is cheap and easy to administer, many complain that it's not accurate — a claim backed by top experts. (Colin Kelly / Staff)
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Navy Lt. John Freeman undergoes hydrostatic body fat testing. (Jon R. Anderson / Staff)
Who are you calling fat?
It’s a question many in uniform ask themselves every time some busybody is stretching that ugly yellow tape around them. And for good reason. Promotions are at stake. Careers are on the line. And as the military downsizes, those considered overweight are getting jettisoned by the services in increasing numbers. Some recent statistics from the services:
Army: The number of troops kicked out for being too fat has increased more than tenfold over the last five years, jumping from 168 in 2008 to 1,815 last year.
Marine Corps: Discharges related to the Corps’ Body Composition Program nearly doubled in fiscal 2011 — to 186 — but were down to 132 in fiscal 2012.
Navy: Failing the body composition portion of the overall physical fitness assessment is more common than failing the physical readiness test, and it’s becoming even more so. In 2004, for every 100 sailors who failed the PRT, 105 failed the body composition assessment. Now, though, for every 100 PRT failures, there are 149 body composition failures.
Air Force: Last year, 1.9 percent of airmen flunked their body composition test. So far this year: 2.3 percent. In fiscal 2012, more than 1,300 airmen were discharged for failing to meet service fitness standards, a 400 percent increase since more rigorous standards were implemented.
Figuring out who is too fat to fight, however, is easier said than done. Just because you weigh more than most troops doesn’t mean you’re necessarily fat. Or unfit — everyone knows that guy who looks chunky but can bench press a Mini Cooper, and outrun it, too.
All of the services use a simple tape test to make the call on who’s too fat. But while the tape test is cheap and easy to administer, many complain that it’s not accurate — a claim backed by top experts.
“It’s ... awful for people who are very muscular,” says Dr. Jordan Moon, director of the Sports Science Center Research Institute in Denver. “The problem with the tape test is that it doesn’t account for muscle, it just accounts for size.”
Most point to a test known as the “skin fold” or “pinch” method using calipers — still relatively easy to perform — for more accurate results.
Troops have long complained the tape test is unfair, an inaccurate gauge of fitness with an outsized impact on their careers. Their complaints mostly fell on deaf ears inside a military command structure looking for a quick, one-size-fits-all method of measuring the fat and fitness levels of millions of troops. So we decided to evaluate the tape test for ourselves. Following service-specific protocols, we taped 10 active-duty troops stationed in the Pacific Northwest and then had them undergo hydrostatic “dunk tank” testing — considered among the gold standards for determining actual body fat composition. We then compared those results to the tape testing methods used by the four services.
The results: Not once did our taping match the dunk test results. The tape test was wrong every time — and in nine out of 10 cases, the tape method measured troops’ body fat percentages higher. The worst was a 66 percent difference between the scores. The closest was still nearly 12 percent off.
Body fat basics
Back in 2002, the Defense Department laid down the law when it came to body fat.
“All the DoD Components shall measure body fat using only the circumference-based method,” read the regs. “This method has been carefully evaluated for applicability to Service members and represents the best approach, which can be applied by Service members with minimal error (plus or minus 1 percent). This method is valid because of the emphasis on abdominal circumference, the site of human body fat deposition that is most strongly associated with health risks, and which corresponds to other military goals including appropriate appearance and healthy exercise habits.”
The Army, Navy and Marine Corps use a basic height-weight body mass index tool as an initial assessment. Those who exceed weight limits get taped. Men are measured at the neck and waist; women: neck, waist and hips. For both, the neck measurement is subtracted from the other measurements in an equation designed to determine their “circumference value.” Those results are then compared against height measurements using Pentagon-generated charts to determine the body fat percentage.
While DoD regulations require all the services to gauge body composition using the same method, the Air Force was allowed to go its own way. It dropped total body fat measurement as part of its new fitness assessment. Now, however, all airmen get taped — but just around the waist. Height and weight are never taken into account.
The consequences of exceeding body fat standards are severe.
Army: Soldiers listed as overweight can’t re-enlist, are not eligible for promotion, aren’t allowed to attend professional military schools and often are barred from leadership positions, and most of those things hold true to varying degrees for the other services.
Marine Corps: Marines who get a bad body fat count receive a mandatory, and usually career-killing, adverse remark in their fitness report.
Navy: If you fail the body composition assessment, you fail the whole physical fitness assessment.Enlisted members who fail the physical fitness assessment three times in four years get kicked out of the fleet.
Air Force: The waist measurement is factored directly into airmen’s PT test scores. If you fail four times in a row or four times within 24 months, commanders can recommend discharge.
While career implications probably make sense for true fat bodies who can’t carry their weight, all that also goes for troops who are PT studs — who may not even be fat.
Capt. Ryan Garrow, an Army AH-64 Apache pilot and company commander at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., always maxes his PT test and always has to get taped to prove he’s not too fat to stay in the Army. On his most recent official weigh-in just a few weeks ago, he taped in at 21 percent body fat, just narrowly avoiding the 22 percent limit for his age group in the Army. And that was just before scoring a perfect 300 on his PT test. In our testing, he taped at 19 percent. Hydrostatic testing, however, revealed his body fat content was 15.4 percent.
Staff Sgt. Rich McIntosh, another Lewis-McChord soldier, is shredded. The Army tape test put his body fat at 17 percent. “There’s no way I’m that Fatty McFatfat,” he says with a scowl. Our testing shows he’s right. Dunk tank results put him at just under 11 percent. That’s a more than 35 percent difference.
Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Dave Anderson, stationed in Bremerton, Wash., maxed his last PT test with 97 pushups, 87 situps and a 10-minute 1.5-mile run. A fireplug — and dedicated CrossFit disciple — at 181 pounds and 5 feet 5½ inches tall, the Navy tape test puts him at 15 percent body fat, but the dunk tank revealed he was only 9.7 percent.
One of these is not like the other
Air Force officials say their system is better.
“We are the only service using science-based standards for our fitness assessment,” says Lt. Col. Colin Huckins, chief of the Air Force’s office for promotions, evaluations and fitness policy.
That’s because the Air Force’s rating system for body composition is based on actual health risk indicators, he says, rather than the normative scale used by the other services.
The Air Force drops the neck measurement and, with it, the complicated computations for total body fat, instead just focusing on the waistline.
“The distribution of fat in the interabdominal area is the most important measure for predicting health risks. It’s much more important for total body fat,” Huckins says. “It’s basically because that’s where a lot of your organs are concentrated. So when you have fat built up around your liver and kidneys, it causes you to have health issues.
“The Air Force, I think, has the best, most accurate measurement,” he says. The test used by the other services “is really difficult for even me, as the fitness policy person, to be able to explain why you failed. The abdominal circumference is something every airman can identify with. Not only is the science behind it, but everyone identifies with your waist size.”
In 2010, the Air Force made the waist measurement part of its new PT test. The thinner your waist, the better your PT score. Huckins says it’s just not possible to have a wide waist and still be physically fit.
“We hear these anecdotal stories all the time about someone who knows a 6 foot 4 guy with a 42-inch waist who maxes out every other component [of the PT test]. Well, show me his fitness assessment score card. We just haven’t seen that.”
Still, the Air Force’s method may be a blessing for some. To fail, men have to have more than a 39-inch waist, measured just above the hip bone. For women, it’s 35.5 inches. Airmen with waists at the upper end of the Air Force scale would likely exceed the other services’ standards if their neck measurements were taken into account.
Differing body types is just one reason Staff Sgt. Greg Spence, an Air Force radiology tech, doesn’t get the Air Force’s test.
“On a daily basis, I get an inside look at people’s bones. Not everyone has the same size feet or hands. So why don’t they understand that not everyone is going to have the same size pelvis?”
Whatever the merits of the Air Force waist measurement program, the service’s senior enlisted leader is expected to decide this summer on whether fixes need to be made.
Experts grade the tape
Body-fat experts weren’t surprised by our findings. Regardless of method, top sports medicine researchers grade tape tests at the very bottom of the testing barrel.
“It’s a D at best” because it wasn’t designed to test individuals but instead for large groups of healthy people, says Moon, director of the Sports Science Center Research Institute in Denver.
He should know. Moon — also an exercise physiology and sport science instructor at the United States Sports Academy, and a certified strength and conditioning specialist who’s helped train a wide range of top-level athletes — has published extensive research comparing all kinds of body fat measurement methods. In one 2008 study, Moon checked the accuracy of military body fat tests among college-aged men in side-by-side comparisons with other body fat tests. Published in the research journal Dynamic Medicine, the study compared the tape test against five other body fat tests.
The military’s was among the very worst, with far too wide a margin of error. “It can vary by as much 15 percent, plus or minus. So, if your results show you’re 20 percent fat, that means there’s a 95 percent chance that you’re really somewhere between 5 and 35 percent fat.”
That results are being used to stall and even end military careers: “That’s ridiculous,” Moon says.
While the Air Force test at least isn’t trying to pass itself off as a total body fat estimation, it’s still questionable, he says.
“I know for a fact Shaquille O’Neal’s waist is bigger than 39 inches. Are they really saying he’s not fit?”
Wrestlers and power lifters — along with any athlete who focuses on core body strength — will also have thicker waistlines.
Dr. Jeffrey R. Stout says tape tests might be a barely adequate tool for gauging general health but should never be considered an accurate measurement of body fat.
A top body fat and sports performance researcher at the University of Central Florida, Stout also is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine as well as the former president of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
His grade for the tape test: D-minus
“It’s not an F, only because it has something to do with health,” Stout says.
Dr. Joan M. Eckerson, associate chair of Creighton University’s exercise science department, is a little more generous. “I’d put it somewhere between a C-minus and a D. It’s just not a very good assessment for the ratio of lean body mass to fat. If you’re going to use a field technique, I’d recommend the skin fold test over anything else.”
In fact, the skin-fold test was recommended by every expert we contacted.
“It’s better by far than tape testing,” Moon says.
Even some of the military’s own researchers have found problems with tape testing.
One 1998 study published in the research journal Military Medicine found that the basic tape testing method still in use today routinely returns false positives for too much body fat.
Out of the 100 active-duty men and women tested, when double-checked against hydrostatic testing, 17 percent were incorrectly fingered for being too fat. Results cut the other way, too. About 15 percent were found within body fat standards when they really weren’t.
The tape test “is adequate for assessment of body fat at the group level, but not at the individual level,” researchers concluded. Other military studies have found that as many as three in 10 get false positives for being over body fat limits.
In defense of the tape
Recently retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, the architect of the Army’s Soldier Athlete program, who also has a master’s degree in exercise physiology, says the tape test isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough.
“While scientific researchers dealing with elite and usually smaller populations will — and should — find the tape test to be less than 100 percent accurate, it still is a cheap, easy and easily administered test,” Hertling says.
“I would suggest those scientists — even the highly rated ones — have never been a company commander or a first sergeant trying to measure over 100 soldiers in a short period of time as part of only one of a thousand things that have to be done to keep the force ready to fight,” he says.
A competitive swimmer in his U.S. Military Academy days, Hertling remains an avid athlete and is a frequent public speaker and evangelist for slimming down the nation’s collective waistline. He serves on the Pentagon panel for the Healthy Base initiative — tasked with finding ways to improve on-base health and wellness programs — and suspects that the vast majority of troops who question the tape test are far fatter than they think they are.
Even those who do well on the PT test shouldn’t be carrying around extra body fat, he says.
“It’s like loading up a Ferrari with 2,000 pounds of sand bags,” Hertling says. “It’ll still go fast for a while, but eventually the shocks are going to wear out, just like our bones do, and it’s going to suffer from other things a car shouldn’t have to suffer from because it wasn’t designed to carry that kind of load. That’s what we’re doing with overfat soldiers.”
Still, he concedes that in some cases, it would be a good idea to make sure it’s actually fat.
“I would say maybe one out of a 100 might have a good argument,” Hertling says. “And that’s just a guess, but we shouldn’t change the entire system for one out of a 100. But we could give them a method of last resort.”
That could be a dunk tank or newer “Bod Pod” air displacement system becoming increasingly common at CrossFit gyms and military fitness centers.
“But you have to be careful,” Hertling says. “If you’ve got one out of a 100 soldiers who deserve it, you’ll have 80 out of 100 soldiers trying to delay any administrative discharge because they want to test the system.”
That would overwhelm the service’s ability to manage the weight control program, he says.
“It would have to be a commander’s call on whether or not a soldier can take that last resort test,” he says. “Otherwise, it would be administratively disastrous to try and schedule everybody just because they don’t like the results of the tape test.”
The Marine Corps maintains that the tape test is the most practical method available.
“It is important to remember that all methods to estimate body fat are just that, estimates,” says Col. Sean Gibson. “Coupling the comparable accuracy of the circumference technique to other methods meets the Marine Corps’ requirement to have a readily accessible and easy to use method that can be used wherever our Marines may be. ... Skin calipers, while being portable, require a great deal of training and have a higher degree of intra and inter-rater variance than do other methods, including the circumference technique.”