Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Equal military physical fitness standards . . . please

Discussing the complexities of the Navy’s Physical Readiness Program surely warrants something on the order of a doctoral dissertation. But since this is a relatively short article, I will focus on just one piece of this ignominious puzzle, one that allows me to give my two cents based on personal experience. Namely, that current physical fitness standards aren’t doing women any favors with respect to finding true equality in the ranks of the military.

Many moons ago, when I attended the U.S. Naval Academy, the campus showcased two obstacle course climbing walls—the men’s wall and the women’s wall. One higher. One lower. Two passing 1.5-mile run times. One faster. One slower. Two numbered requirements for push-ups. One more. One less.

Men:  Higher, faster, more.

Women:  Lower, slower, less.

It just glares at you, doesn’t it? And in my opinion, it’s the kiss of death in terms of unit cohesion. We say we want to give women a fair shot at integrating equally into our military, but how is this possible with differing standards within our ranks?

While there is no easy solution, ultimately, the Navy would do well to move to fitness standards based on job requirement.

Let’s use the easy example of a Navy fireman.
If the job requirement states that a fireman must be able to drag a 170-pound person for 50 feet, there’s a valid reason for it. If I’m that 170-pound person, lying collapsed in a burning building and in need of rescue,  I want to know that whoever arrives to save me has passed this requirement. I don’t care if they’re male, female, gay, straight, purple or striped. Can you get me out of here? That’s all I want to know.

In Navy flight school, the instructors employed all manner of contraptions and apparatuses to simulate helicopter crashes, jet crashes, and being dragged by a parachute. No surprise that the tests were the same for all of us. Survival in the event an aircraft mishap is most certainly a gender-neutral endeavor.

The camaraderie and mutual respect garnered from shared experiences like the ones I had in flight school, men and women having met the same standards, drew us closer as a group, resulting in a more cohesive team.

Compare this with the “baseline” physical readiness standards that every member of the Navy, regardless of warfare specialty, must meet.

Navy personnel must run 1.5 miles or swim 500 yards, followed by curl-ups and push-ups. They are then rated in one of six performance categories, delineated by age and gender, based on their physical readiness test results:
Let’s say a 35-year-old woman runs 1.5 miles in 15:00. This would earn her a “good” score, whereas, her 35-year-old male counterpart who also ran 15:00 would only receive a “satisfactory” score. Come the end of the year when annual job evaluations are given, assuming all else is equal, this could be the tie breaker.

In fact, a 35-year-old woman can run a full two minutes slower than her male counterpart for a “satisfactory” or passing score. Two minutes? Are you kidding?

Ok, I said this would be a short article, but I just have to say something on this point.

My husband and I have owned a triathlon coaching business for eleven years, coaching athletes ranging in age from  18 to 74. This means we work day in and day out with individuals, men and women, who fall within the age range to serve in the military. Most of them are not elite-level athletes, just as most military personnel are not elite-level athletes. Most of them are accountants, attorneys, stay-at-home moms and dads . . . you get the idea. Just normal folks who like to stay in shape.

Based on our experience, it would be ludicrous to suggest that our female athletes would, on average, perform two minutes slower on a 1.5-mile run test than our men in the same age range. And yet, if we use the Navy’s physical fitness standards as an example, this is exactly what you see.

Regarding the performance of the 35-year-old woman, the 35-year-old man has every right to say, “She did not meet the qualifications I had to meet.” And there is nothing more damaging to the esprit de corps necessary in any well-functioning team than the splinters of perceived unfairness formed in cases like this.

I remember completing the physical readiness test while overseas on deployment and receiving a “maximum” score for push-ups. When my fellow pilots found out, they were smug. “So, how many push-ups did you have to do on the women’s scale?” You know, that inferior one. The one that proves that you’re weaker and we’re stronger. Yeah, that one. Fortunately, I was able to respond that I had scored the maximum on the men’s scale. But what was interesting was their reactions. It was immediate.  A 180-degree about face. I had to squint from the onrush of air from so many rapidly deflating balloons. Well, ok then. Perhaps you’re worthy, after all.

More on push-ups below, but first, back to running. If the Navy insists on baseline run time standards for its personnel, they should use a physical-standards-based-on-job-requirement model and calibrate the baseline to the job that requires the lowest physical standards. Then, depending on warfare specialty, the physical requirements would go up from there. Regardless, the standards should be the same for all, men and women, in their particular warfare specialty.

And just as a side note, does running 1.5 miles once per year and doing so under a certain time indicate fitness? I knew plenty of service members who never worked out. Ever. Yet, once a year, they gutted out a 1.5-mile run and were deemed “fit.”

Which leads me to the 500-yard swim standards . . .

You know, I’m not even going to cover this. The main problem with swim standards isn’t a gender issue, not primarily, anyway, so I won’t touch it. No, this article is supposed to be short. I won’t even start. Can’t start . . .

But . . . Just . . . Can’t . . . Help . . .  It.

Aghh, I have to say something!

The swim tests are so utterly unrelated to fitness, it’s ludicrous. Yes, ludicrous. I’ve now used the word ludicrous four times in one article, but the absurdity of the swim standards demands it.

As a swim coach, the subject is near and dear to my heart—perhaps too near. But when a 30-year-old woman is given 15 minutes to swim 500 yards—this is 3 minutes per 100 yards—you have to scratch your head. I mean . . . no. Just no, no, no. This is not in any way, shape, or form, a proper measure of fitness.

At these swim speeds—in fact, for most of the swim speeds listed in all categories for all ages—you are testing technique, not fitness.

Times in swimming for all but those engaged in the competitive swimming arena are far more technique-dependent than fitness-dependent. Someone with decent swim technique who hasn’t exercised in years, can jump in the pool and swim 500 yards in the time standards dictated by the Navy.

And lest you think upper body strength has anything to do with possible swim time differentials between men and women, you’d have to move to the collegiate levels of competitive swimming and higher to find it. For the average sailor, there is no difference between men and women in the water. The sport is so technique dependent, gender becomes a moot point. Therefore, if the Navy insists on swim time standards as a measure of fitness, without question, these have to be the same. 

And, oh by the way, swim times required for a passing score should equate to the fitness level required for a passing time in the run within the same age group. For the 30-year-old woman, to pass the run test requires completing 1.5 miles in 16:45, or 11:10 per mile. And while this might not seem exceptionally fast, if you were to equate it to the “fitness” required to swim 500 yards in 15 minutes, you could walk the 1.5-miles. No, make that stroll. No, actually, you could hop backwards, spinning the whole way, and it would still work . . . .

But I digress.

The powers that be have it right with curl-ups.

The number of curl-ups required for men and women are the same across all age categories. Bravo. As it should be.

But push-ups . . . ?

I have two issues with push-ups. First, is the test itself fair? Can men and women be expected to compete equally here based on the inherent physical differences between them? And second, is the number of push-ups one can perform indicative of one’s fitness.

On the first point, whether you like it or not, men and women are built differently. Generally speaking, men are more well-muscled in the upper body than a woman. That’s just how it is. Our bodies are different.  So, generally speaking, men are going to be able to perform more push-ups than a woman. The current standards reflect this.

But no matter how you slice it, no matter how fair you think the adjusted standards are, in the elemental psyche of a  human, we know the score (pun intended). The 35-year-old male knows he had to perform three times the number of push-ups—three times—to receive a passing score than his female counterpart.

Can you imagine how the 35-year-old male would feel, having just performed 26 push-ups, an effort resulting in the category “failure,” while the 35-year-old woman next to him performed just 9 and received a passing score? You can scream all you want and say that the standards have been adjusted to allow for the differences in our physical make-ups—that it’s a fair test—but I highly doubt that man is going to think so. And will this add to unit cohesion? Highly doubtful.

On the second point, does the number of push-ups one can perform indicate physical fitness? What if a 45-year-old man cranks out 68 push-ups, but can only manage 1.5 miles in 16:08, which is 10:45 per mile? Is this person more fit than the 45-year-old woman who can only do 4 push-ups, but who can run 1.5 miles in 10:58, which is 7:19 per mile?

In this example, the man would pass the Navy’s test, but the woman would not. Hmm.

If the Navy is going to require physical fitness standards, the tests to determine if personnel meet those standards need to be fair. Once fair tests have been established, the standards need to be the same across the board. Moving to physical tests based on job requirement would be a step in the right direction.

Women need to be viewed equally, as having passed the same standards, not as having taken an easier path or that they are somehow less qualified or inferior. The successful integration of women in our ranks depends on it.


  1. Amazing insight Anne! So proud of you!!

  2. Great insight Anne. I'm so proud of you!

  3. Anne...I'm so happy you wrote about this. I didn't have the most extensive military career, but when I have always felt strongly that as a soldier, your job is to be physically fit...period. My strategy at the Air Force academy was to not only be able to Max the female fitness test, but Max the men's fitness test ( I could always do this with the exception of being in the 87 percentile for the men's sprint). I imeadeatly had the respect of me peers ( mostly men) as a result (I felt). I can't tell you how manytime a I have seen people in leadership positions look the other way when it comes to fitness standards, especially female fitness standards, I find it to be a comment on our present day military readiness. I could go on and on....for example, Kiel and I live close to the army guard at Papago and they do their oft on the running path by our house....absence of details....it is always a pitiful site...

    1. Thanks, Jeanine, for such an extensive and thoughtful comment. Your experience--earning the respect of your male peers when performing to their standards--is also what I found. We desperately need to get away from "their" standards and have it be "our" standards, so all women can enjoy the same respect. Thanks for reading!

  4. This is an excellent article that truely shows how biased the military is towards women. I hope to serve in the military someday, so hopefully when I turn 18, the military will have changed it's tune about women's physical capabilities.