Why fitness matters – reviewing history of Army fitness testing

By Douglas Holl, Army Public Health CenterJanuary 19, 2022

Why fitness matters – reviewing history of Army fitness testing
This timeline shows some of the specific fitness tests used by the U.S. Army since the initial standardized test used for cadets at the U.S. Military Academy in 1858. (U.S. Army Public Health Center graphic illustration by Jerry Arnold) (Photo Credit: Jerry Arnold) VIEW ORIGINAL

ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- An important aspect of being a member of the U.S. military service is to meet basic physical fitness standards established by Department of Defense Instruction. The DOD requires each Service to establish its own physical training program to measure fitness in a way determined most relevant to that Service.

Physical training programs required of military service members support well-established evidence-based Department of Health and Human Services recommendations for healthy adults to participate in 150 to 300 minutes of moderate physical activity a week, or alternatively 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity. Additionally, adults should aim for two or three sessions of strength training each week.

Regular activity and exercise is recommended for adults to maintain healthy fitness, but is especially important for adults who have physical jobs. The types and amounts of physical training and exercise can depend on the job duties.

Each Service in the military routinely monitors basic fitness levels using standardized test protocols on a semi-annual or annual basis. Test results provide a basis for determining physical performance capabilities and potential medical readiness weaknesses, such as injury risks.

The use of fitness tests to monitor or determine health status and job capability is common among military, police, and firefighters, says Veronique Hauschild, lead author of a 2019 systematic review of studies of physical fitness tests used by national and international organizations.

Changes in operations, equipment, and procedures, as well as science, have led to various changes to many organizations’ fitness testing programs over the years. This includes the U.S. military services.

Since 1980, the Army Physical Fitness Test, a three-test assessment that included 2-minute push-ups, 2-minute sit-ups, and a 2-mile timed run, has been the official Army test of record. One of the benefits of the APFT is the ease by which the Army could implement the test consistently to all Soldiers.

Over time, concerns regarding the APFT and its standards, its relationship to common military tasks, and its limited measure of Soldiers’ physical strength, were increasingly raised.

So after over 40 years of use, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command updated its doctrine Field Manual (FM) 7-22, Holistic Health and Fitness to replace the APFT with the six-test Army Combat Fitness Test.

The ACFT includes the dead lift, standing power throw, hand-release push up, sprint-drag-carry, leg tuck hold, and 2-mile run. Alternative testing considerations include the option of the plank hold in place of the leg tuck.

According to TRADOC, the ACFT is more in line with combat activities and it has received positive appraisals from soldiers testing the new program.

TRADOC helps Soldiers prepare for the test by providing ACFT updates as well as tips to train safely.

As previously reported by APHC, the ACFT promotes the importance of a more balanced physical fitness training regimen.

With the ACFT, the 2-mile timed run remains an important aspect of the Army’s fitness test. Though run times are expected to be slower than with the prior 3-test APFT, the run test is an excellent measure of cardiorespiratory endurance, also known as aerobic fitness, says Hauschild.

“Based on the 2019 systematic review, aerobic fitness was linked to the performance of more military tasks than any other aspect of fitness.” says Hauschild.

But as shown by the study, and as emphasized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fitness is more than just aerobic capacity. Lower body and upper body strength are important fitness considerations for physically vigorous occupations such as the military.

While military fitness tests such as the ACFT provide a basis to monitor Soldiers’ fitness levels, APHC has incorporated the CDC activity guidelines into its Performance Triad Soldier Athlete target goals, along with guidelines for proper nutrition and sleep habits.

Soldiers can use these goals as another tool to ensure an optimal adequate physical activity program is factored into their schedules.

The Army Public Health Center enhances Army readiness by identifying and assessing current and emerging health threats, developing and communicating public health solutions, and assuring the quality and effectiveness of the Army’s Public Health Enterprise