The Army Does Not Need a Better Fitness Test. It Needs a Better Culture
Robert W. Frisina works at Milvets Technology Systems supporting the Army’s Mission Command Training Program and WARFIGHTER program. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in history from Clemson University and a Master of Arts in diplomacy from Norwich University. He is a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army Reserve and a graduate of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School Civil Affairs Specialist Course.
The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not represent the Mission Command Training Program, the United States Army Reserve or the Defense Department.
Military.com’s recent report that more than half of female soldiers are still falling short on the Army Combat Fitness Test, and 44% have failed, shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to any service leader who has been paying attention to implementation efforts.
It has been documented repeatedly that the Army, while attempting to create a gender- and age-neutral test, might inadvertently have skewed it unfavorably against women.
This has been acknowledged by the revision of scoring tables, the addition of a plank option if one cannot perform a successful leg tuck, and the removal of the military occupational specialty-specific scoring tables. It seems clear that, before the ACFT is fully implemented, it is most likely going to change again.
The implementation of this test has gone on in the unprecedented environment of COVID-19. Installations closed gyms, and PT formations were discontinued. If anything, the testing and implementation of the ACFT revealed what many Army leaders already knew — that physical readiness across the force is in a severe state of a lack of readiness.
Change is hard. But the rampant criticism of the ACFT prompts a question: Is there a physical fitness test that could overcome all that resistance to change? Regardless of how you may personally feel, there has to be an acknowledgment that the current Army Physical Fitness Test is flawed. I would hope that, in the 41 years since the APFT was first implemented as a test of record, we have gained a greater understanding of physical science.
After 20 years of constant deployments in austere environments, it has become obvious the APFT has deficiencies in preparing soldiers to lift heavy equipment, sprint quickly and rapidly, and even move wounded soldiers under fire. One needs only to look at the data on disability claims and medical retirements over musculoskeletal or sports injuries as a result of overuse.
In my almost 15 years of service, I’ve been to physical therapy twice for sports-related PT-induced injuries despite being in good physical shape. When you take this into account, it is clear the Army needed to make a change to the fitness test.
When the ACFT is eventually implemented as a test of record, it will likely be the most assessed and criticized physical fitness test ever to be implemented in the history of the service. Army leaders must all acknowledge, practice and promote the belief that — regardless of your MOS, age or gender — physical fitness at an acceptable, measurable standard is a requirement of being a soldier.
The Army can no longer rely on society to supply physically fit individuals capable of entering our ranks without a significant education and training in physical fitness to bring them up to an acceptable standard for combat and general soldiering. As former commander of United States Army Europe and Senior Vice President of AdventHealth, retired Gen. Mark Hertling has noted in the past that the lack of physical fitness in our society is a risk to our national security.
I believe that a big reason for the resistance to the ACFT is that the Army lacks a culture of physical fitness and physical excellence. For too long, we have “taught to the test:” Unit-level PT programs have focused on soldiers’ individual deficiencies to help them pass the APFT.
The Army attempted to fix this with the creation of Physical Readiness Training. But as long as metrics drive a definable level of success for command teams, units continue to focus on getting soldiers to pass the APFT because pass/fail rates are the metric.
The result of the Army’s efforts was a test with events involving different levels of aerobic and anaerobic fitness, an attempt to force units to train across a broader spectrum of physical activity. The goal was to create a broader set of physical fitness skill sets and decrease musculoskeletal injuries, achieving physical readiness. But this logic is flawed.
As long as the service takes a non-holistic approach to soldier physical readiness, it will never achieve the results it desires. Army-wide dining facilities feed soldiers an unhealthy diet overladen with simple carbohydrates and sugar and light on healthy options. Our soldiers and leaders still consume tobacco and caffeine at rates far beyond the general public, and food courts and shops on installations continue to provide cheap, unhealthy fast food options.
The problem in the Army is not that we don’t have the right test; it’s that we don’t have the right culture of physical fitness. As long as we continue as an Army to be test-focused and not culture-focused, we will fail at this challenge.
Noted leadership and management expert Peter Drucker often said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
The Army thinks that if it creates the right physical fitness strategy with the ACFT, it will solve its physical fitness problem. But this will never be achieved as long as we have a defunct physical fitness culture in the service. Creating and forcing a new test won’t create the culture the Army desires. Given the current lack of physical fitness culture in the service, no test will ever be sufficient to meet this end state.
It is easy to be a critic; it is harder to provide a solution. Foremost, the Army must give junior leaders the ability to create and sustain a physical fitness culture specific to their MOS needs. We need to go back to what the Army’s Holistic Health and Fitness publication states: Physical fitness tests are for commanders to assess the physical readiness of THEIR units. Tests are baseline assessments for seeing where we need to improve. They were never intended to be the only way of doing so, and they certainly were not designed to be the only way of creating and promoting leaders.
The Army should enable units from all components to attend the Master Fitness Trainer, or MFT, course. As a way of stimulating more physical fitness education and culture stimulation, MFT needs to modify its requirements so that the initial physical fitness testing is not a cause for removal from the course. The Army needs masters in physical fitness culture, not master physical fitness test takers. And finally, as hard as it may be to enforce, garrison command teams must seek to provide healthy alternatives to the glut of fast food offered on installations, and we have to reform the diets within our dining facilities. We cannot create physically fit soldiers with unhealthy diets and eating habits.
As Army leaders, it is past time that we all embrace the ACFT as the test of record for our units. I fully anticipate the ACFT to change and keep changing, just like the APFT did. But the ACFT will never be the perfect test to solve our physical readiness issues in the Army without a corresponding culture of physical fitness excellence to promote and enable it.
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