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Tape tests don't cut it

May. 16, 2013 - 05:47PM   |  
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For members of the military struggling to stay in fighting trim, the stakes are higher than ever: The services have been cutting end strength as spending slows, and those who fail to meet fitness standards are being booted out in growing numbers.

Tape-test results seal the fate for thousands whose body fat levels are calculated as exceeding standards. Troops have long complained the tapings are wildly inaccurate and often not a reflection of overall fitness. So far the brass has paid little heed.

But the troops’ complaints have merit, a Military Times project shows: We ran 10 troops through both tape testing and dunk-tank testing and found the dunk-test results yielded significantly lower body fat percentages. National experts were not surprised. Jordan Moon, director of the Sports Science Research Center in Denver, conducted a 2008 study of the accuracy of military body fat tape testing and found results vary up to 15 percent.

The brass counters that tape testing in fact has an error rate of about 1 percent. Recently retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, the driving force behind the Army’s Soldier Athlete program, said that while taping may not be the method of choice for small, controlled settings, it’s a reasonably accurate test that military leaders can conduct in the field with large numbers of troops.

Hertling concedes, however, that in exceptional cases, there could be a good argument for putting a service member in a dunk tank, or some other measurement system, before making a career-altering decision. That would be a good start toward a larger goal of overhauling military body fat testing. “Good enough” just doesn’t cut it when livelihoods are on the line.

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