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New body fat rules, big changes to Navy BCA

July 30, 2015 (Photo Credit: Mike Morones/Staff)

The good news for sailors with PFA problems: You're getting a do-over, and a new set of easier body fat standards.

The bad news is the service is dropping the number of failures it takes to get booted.

The Navy is shaking up the body composition assessment, increasing body fat limits for sailors, moving away from career-ending punishments for BCA failures and taking a deeper look at how it measures health in general.

The shifts are a new direction in the fitness program that's designed to move away from a punitive system to one that encourages year-round fitness, with a focus on helping those struggling to stay fit.

"We like to speak of a culture of fitness, but we really haven't implemented a culture of fitness across the Navy," said Vice Adm. Bill Moran, chief of naval personnel, in a July 28 interview. "Fitness should truly be about being healthy and mission readiness — Are you physically fit for times of combat and stress in the fleet? We need a system that speaks to better health, to the readiness of our sailors. And part of that is, are we doing things to encourage a culture of fitness?"

The new rules make it harder to fail the body composition assessment portion of the physical fitness assessment. But that comes at the cost of only getting two failures in three years before getting kicked out.

Moran said he's heard the sailors' cries for reform and said these changes aren't the end, but the beginning of a "more realistic" fitness program that's more than two tests per year.

Frankly, he'd like a system that could end the twice-yearly testing cycles, and instead actively gauge fitness and health on a year-round basis, he said.

PFA fail reset

It started with the Navy realizing that there's no "one size fits all" in fitness and certainly not in body composition.

Moran said he sees the extremes at nearly every all-hands call — fit sailors looking for better recognition and those who say they're in good shape but can't pass the BCA.

"What we've tried to do in this policy change — with the tenets of better health and being mission ready as the focus — is to also make sure we're not throwing out good sailors because we can't meet both ends of that spectrum," Moran said.

Moran said that the Navy's fitness program is entering what he calls a "transition" phase during the rest of the year.

Starting during this fall's cycle, a BCA failure with the current body fat standards no longer equals a PFA failure. Sailors who bust the body fat test will be allowed to take the Physical Readiness Test, but they'll have to enroll in the remedial Fitness Enhancement Program work-outs and nutritional counseling.

That's great news for the many sailors who say they have no problem with the run, sit-ups and push-ups, but consistently fail height and weight standards.

But it gets better.

Sailors on the edge of a forced separation for PFA failures will get a second chance to stay in.

Those with an approved or pending administrative separation as of July 1, for three PFA failures in the past four years, can notify their commanding officers that they'd like to stay in the Navy, then pass a PRT before Dec. 1.

Regardless of the number of failures in the past three years, sailors meeting standard by the deadline will be reset to one failure starting next year, when new BCA standards take effect. Those who fail the PFA for a third time this fall, if it's their third failure in four years, will still be separated.

Moran made it clear that appealing the admin separation is voluntary.

"We're going to give them a chance to continue with the discharge if they don't want to continue in the Navy or reset during this fall period," Moran said.

"Between now and December, if they get down within the new standards and can pass under the new guidance, we reset their failure to one — then if they fail again, they're on the way out."

The move will potentially save thousands of sailors' careers. More than 6,700 active-duty and reserve sailors have three PFA failures in the past four years, according to official data, and an additional 20,000 have failed twice in four years.

The new BCA

The next step is raising the threshold for a BCA failure.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2016, body fat limits will go beyond the previous under-40 and over-40 age standards, with four new groups.

Men ages 18 to 21 will stay at the previous 22 percent body fat max, but from 22 to 29 they're allowed up to 23 percent, 24 percent between 30 and 39, and up to 26 percent over 40.

For women, it's 33 percent from 18 to 21, 34 percent for 22 to 29, 35 percent for 30 to 39 and 36 percent over 40.

"It's a little more stringent than the DoD standard, but a bit more graduated by age than the current BCA standard," Moran said. "It takes into account the physical changes that happen as we all age, too — so in that way, it's a little more realistic set of standards."

Moran said the DoD limits are there for a reason and can not be lifted.

"DoD has established a maximum limit for body fat percentage based on the American Medical Association and other institutions who say, if you exceed that limit, you have reached an obesity level that raises your likelihood for things like cancer or diabetes and other medical issues," Moran said.

"For me, that's the right side limit of where we will allow sailors to be — if you exceed that DoD limit, you are, by definition, obese, at-risk and that's a failure."


Starting in January, sailors who don't meet the standard height and weight measurements, will first get a waist-only tape test, which maxes out at 39 inches for men and 35.5 inches for women. Pass that and you're good. It's the current test used by the Air Force as their BCA measurement.

But the Navy is adding yet one more chance for sailors to pass.

The final chance will be the existing and very unpopular "rope and choke" tape test that measures them at the neck and waist (plus hips for women), then calculates the measurements to a body fat percentage. For those over the Defense Department's maximum of 26 percent for men and 36 percent for women, it's a PFA failure.

And a failure will land an over-standard sailor for their age group in the Fitness Enhancement Program. But initially, they won't fail PFA altogether.

And even that, Moran said won't be punitive, but instead it'll be "educational."

"We're going to give you the tools, nutrition guidance, exercise guidance and we're going to have you take the PRT every 30 days until you can pass and until you get down below the new Navy BCA standard," Moran said.

The Navy also plans to develop a Navy-wide registered dietitian plan, giving sailors more access to professional counseling where food choices are concerned.

That's part of a push that includes beefing up the ShipShape healthy eating program and SECNAV's new "Go for Green" initiative, which uses color-codes to advise sailors on the healthiest choices at the galley and also eliminate fried foods.

Unlike the current policy, sailors who fail the BCA will now take the PRT if they're medically cleared.

"We had several thousand of sailors who failed the BCA last year," Moran said. "None of these sailors took the [PRT] last year, so we don't have any idea if whether they're fit at all or capable of carrying on a mission — we just fail them."

Previously, sailors with three PFA failures over four years were forced out. Now, with the looser BCA standards, two PFA failures in three years will end in a discharge.

To keep sailors on a fitness path in between PFAs, Moran is encouraging commands to randomly stop sailors for body fat spot-checks throughout the year. They could serve as a warning to borderline sailors or result in FEP enrollment ahead of the next cycle.

Officials hope the move will cut back on the number of sailors discharged every year for PFA failures, which has totaled thousands in the past four years.

Nearly 1,300 sailors have been discharged because of failures in the 2014 cycles, though those numbers aren't final. That was up from 1,200 in 2013 and over 1,100 in 2012, when the numbers jumped significantly from about 700 in 2011.

Right now, the only changes to the Physical Readiness Test will be a return to the old scoring levels eliminated a few years ago. That graduated scoring put intermediate levels of low, medium and high under each of the major categories of satisfactory, excellent and outstanding, something the fleet pushed hard for, Moran said.

"We are going to bring back levels of excellence because it's a way of measuring progress and for COs to recognize sailors for their fitness level or improvements in their evaluations if they choose to," Moran said.

Long time coming

The Navy's PFA has been the bane of many a sailor's existence for years. In a May speech at the Naval Academy, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus likened it to a twice-a-year crucible, where sailors go to extreme measures to get within standards.

The discussion came to a head last summer, when a list of PFA proposals drafted at a Command Fitness Leaders summit circulated through the ranks and caught fire.

The suggestions included doing away with "bad-day" retests for the PRT, mandatory tape tests and random BCAs throughout the year. Officials acknowledged the list but denied that any of those proposals were hitting the fleet.

Navy Times readers then responded to a call-out with their suggestions for improving the PFA. Chief among them were rethinking or canning the BCA, making CFLs better at taking measurements, more flexible gym hours and incentives for those who consistently score an outstanding on their tests, ideas the Navy took to heart.

Late last year, the Navy Personnel Command instituted a CFL Navy Enlisted Classification, to help commands keep better track of their CFL's qualifications and to help in the search for new fitness coordinators.

Then, in May, Mabus announced there would be changes this year that included the new waist-only tape test, BCA spot-checks, expanded gym hours and a new Outstanding Fitness Award, an idea that had been batted around since 2005.

Rewards for maxing out your PFA are two-fold. Those who score an outstanding on one PFA cycle are authorized to wear a badge on their fitness suit, when it comes out next year.

Sailors who max out three PFAs in a row will earn a uniform award, though it hasn't been determined whether it will be a ribbon or a medal. Sailors can expect to see more information in the fall, CNP spokesman Cmdr. Chris Servello said.

Looking ahead

The latest policy change includes long-term goals aimed at promoting and measuring sailors' fitness.

Moran said that the Navy's goal is to find a way to measure fitness year-round that could eliminate the twice-a-year testing regimen. But don't expect that to happen soon.

"These changes are the first step toward making this a year-long process, as opposed to a semi-annual test to get through," he said. "We still have to have the test for a while until we find a better way to to measure mission readiness, to gauge if you are physically fit enough that you can carry out missions at sea."

As Mabus said in May, different jobs have different fitness requirements — but the bottom line is the Navy needs a way to measure health.

Moran said that early next year, the Navy will begin a pilot program in yet-to-be-named Pacific Fleet and Navy Reserve units using wearable fitness trackers like Fitbit .

It's part of what Moran called a search to find if "there's ways to measure better health — heart rate blood pressure, cholesterol levels — all things that promote better fitness and result in better performance on the PRT," he said.

"We have to measure it, track it for a full year, but the notion is rather than two annual tests, it's a focus on, are you making improvements and are you meeting standards for weight control, blood pressure cholesterol? Instead of a discussion of, are you inside your height-weight levels and can you pass the PRT? — which is where we are today."

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