How the Army combat fitness test exposes the military’s unhealthy focus on ‘making weight’
“It’s become just a normal part of Army culture and military culture, and that’s not good.”
As the Army forges ahead with its new Combat Fitness Test, there is a growing call from soldiers and health experts for leaders to make another change, this time to the Army’s height and weight standards.
“Bottom line is that we just don’t actually need to assess people” on height and weight, said Capt. Kristina Fauser-Martin, an Army performance dietician. “I know that sounds crazy, and it’s probably a bit too radical for what the Army is going to eventually do if they change this, but in the world of sport[s] we don’t see them dictating that you have to be such-and-such. And oftentimes when they do, it does lead to some pretty detrimental effects.”
The Army currently works off of a screening table that takes a soldier’s height and age and gives them the number they should weigh. During a weigh-in, which usually happens twice a year, soldiers are measured for body fat if they weigh more than the number on the table. Called the “taping method” and known as “making tape” by troops, this is done by measuring the circumference of different parts of the body — for men, the neck and abdomen; for women, the neck, waist, and hips — and putting it into an equation that produces a body fat percentage.
But the taping method is outdated, according to several Army clinicians, since it doesn’t account for different body types and sizes and disproportionately hurts women. And it’s not just women who are negatively impacted: More muscular men who appear strong and fit could fail to “make tape” based on their body size.
Yet as the Army shifts to the Army Combat Fitness Test, which emphasizes building muscle to do things like a deadlift, sprint-drag-carry, and standing power throw, soldiers and clinicians have raised concerns that the service will need to look at its body weight composition standards and make changes to account for the added muscle mass soldiers will be packing on.
The issue has already reached the highest levels of the Army.
A spokeswoman for Christopher Lowman, the senior official performing the duties of Undersecretary of the Army, said Lowman and Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston have discussed the issue of body weight composition. Grinston has also requested that the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine develop a study on how the ACFT could require the Army to make updates to its Body Composition Program.
“Mr. Lowman is looking forward to the response and believes science needs to guide our decisions moving forward,” said Lt. Col. Jamie Dobson.
Concerns about the way the Army — and the Defense Department as a whole — measures height and weight exists outside the Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) and other service fitness tests. As Fauser-Martin explained, the body mass index, or BMI, was “never intended to be a measure of health,” adding that BMI was created by an astronomer in the 1830s who took measurements from a population of around 200 white men. Almost two centuries later, those same measurements are still being used for all ethnicities and genders.
“BMI and weight alone are not reliable indicators of health as they do not provide information on an individual’s overall health status, behaviors, or body composition,” Fauser-Martin and other Army clinicians and psychologists wrote last year in an internal report.
Col. Susan Davis, the director of the Army Medical Department’s Talent Management Program who has a background as an orthopedic physical therapist, said it’s “very eye-opening” to look at where the standards actually come from. “You have to stop and say, does this still apply today?” she said.
The problem was further put on display by The Army Mom Life — an advocacy group recently highlighted in by the Army for making “it their mission to affect positive change, not only within their own organizations, but for mothers across the Army.”
Earlier this month, the page shared a slide deck on Twitter that included dozens of photos of women and their body fat content worksheets, which is what soldiers fill out when they’re being taped. Sgt. 1st Class Myeshia Boston, an administrator of the page, said the intent was to create awareness “about an issue that is affecting female soldiers.”
“Our ultimate goal with this project was awareness and examination of current practices to see if there are better ways in which we can execute the intent while supporting our soldiers and ensuring we are optimizing all of our available resources,” she said.
Fauser-Martin said the easiest thing to recognize in the slides is that many of the women are likely off the weight table, despite clearly being “very fit looking individuals.” And secondly, it emphasizes that while they may be very fit soldiers, the shape of their bodies might get in the way of them passing tape.
“If you don’t have that smaller waist to accompany bigger hips, that is just kind of a recipe for failing that taping which, you know when you’re looking at those individuals they may have almost six-packs so it’s like, it’s not excess abdominal weight in that scenario it’s just that they have a more structurally sound core,” she explained.
Another thread from Army Mom Life described all the things women do to meet the standards at weigh-in, like “[c]hugging a bottle of magnesium citrate the day before tape,” or “going with less water, fasting for days or more prior,” and taking laxatives in the days leading up to having measurements taken.
That practice isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s so deeply rooted in the service that it’s made its way into official orders. The Army’s Body Composition Program (Army Regulation 600-9) says commanders should allow seven days between a fitness test and a weigh-in because some soldiers “that are close to exceeding the screening weight may attempt to lose weight quickly in the days leading up to a weigh-in,” which can result in the soldier “being unable to perform his or her best” on the fitness test.
Lt. Rachel Dyal, an Army dietician, told Task & Purpose that she and her colleagues have regularly observed soldiers exhibit “concerning behaviors” that would “qualify as disordered eating” — such as restricted eating and using laxatives ahead of weigh-in days — not only because of pressure to meet the standards but because of the stigma around body image. This is far from a women-only issue; Dyal said men absolutely have many of the same struggles.
“Even people who aren’t necessarily worried about failing the standard will still be worried about how they’re perceived by their peers or higher-level leaders because, ‘Oh, they saw me eating a donut so they’re going to be upset with me,’” Dyal said. “Or ‘even though I can pass my PT test and I’m passing tape, still I don’t want to be taped, I want to just pass weight.’ Things like that.”
The pressure to lose weight is particularly frustrating to see as a dietician, Fauser-Martin said, because she wants to emphasize total fitness and health — but the soldiers who end up in her office after they don’t pass tape are more concerned with losing weight than developing healthy habits.
“We can talk all about these wonderful behaviors and the impact to our long-term health,” she said. “However at the end of the day the service member sitting across from me is like ‘Yeah okay that all sounds great, however, I’m going to lose my job if I don’t lose the weight.’”
Priscilla Rumph, a registered dietician at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington who specializes in sports nutrition and eating disorders, echoed that concern, saying service members don’t feel confident in living truly healthy lifestyles that include “intuitive eating” — or eating habits that don’t target some foods as “bad” and others as “good,” and gets rid of the shame around eating certain foods — because all they’re focused on is “making weight/tape.”
And it’s not just rank-and-file soldiers — Rumph said she has talked to “plenty” of commanders who are dealing with these problems, which in part has contributed to why the issue has become so pervasive. She explained that there’s a culture of tolerance, whereas soldiers rise in the ranks, they adopt the mindset of: “I had to tolerate and endure that, everyone else needs to tolerate and endure that.”
On top of these baseline concerns with the way the Army measures body composition is the worry that these already-pervasive issues could be exacerbated by the ACFT.
“The ACFT is lifting and dragging and throwing things, and you really have to build muscle to be stronger. And in the old fitness test, it did not really — our culture as well has been kind of about the thin runner,” Davis said. “I would even go so far as to say no one really cared about your push-ups and sit-ups but if you could run fast, that’s like your calling card. So yeah, the dynamic has really changed.”
While the dynamic of the test has changed, the stigma of being “off the table” and having to get taped has not. Rumph said she works with several women who are bodybuilders who have disordered eating because they feel pressure to get their weight down below the table requirement as they near the time of year when they’ll be measured.
But that’s hard to do when you’re primarily made of muscle.
“It’s not easy to decrease your weight at any time,” Rumph said. “But it’s especially much, much harder if now I’m stronger. So now I’m doing more drastic things, and that’s what they’re experiencing. It’s happening right now, April’s coming up, that’s when they’re going to do height/weight again. And we absolutely cannot hardly keep up with the amount of people who are struggling with disordered eating. Because they don’t want to be off the table.”
Fauser-Martin said the standards could become a limiting factor as soldiers train for the ACFT, which she said is “a much better indicator of your overall fitness.”
“If we add other kind of like job specifics, especially for the infantry world or the combat arms world, you know if you can do all of those and you can move the body that you have, I don’t know why we need to be dictating that you need to look a certain way,” she said. “And we know that taking those measurements at a minimum is harmful. We could do without that information and still be a very strong force, and allow people to potentially train as hard as they want to without having to worry about, ‘Well you know, I would like to go up in weight on my deadlift but that would mean that I’m going to exceed this much extra weight.’ I hate that people would have to make that choice.”
Ultimately, Rumph said it’s about a culture of fitness and health in the Army; one that isn’t necessarily following the science and is “hurting everyone.”
“We’re literally trying to change a culture of twice a year, starving myself,” she said. “It’s become just a normal part of Army culture and military culture, and that’s not good.”
Featured photo: Cadet Xavier Newson of Bowie State University ROTC, attempts as many hand release push-ups as possible during a diagnostic Army Combat Fitness Test on the morning of Nov. 17, 2020 on Fort Meade, Md. (U.S. Army/Sgt. 1st Class Vanessa Atchley)