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Are you too fat? New body fat rules would be among toughest across services

Sep. 30, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Airmen with the 32nd Combat Communications Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., flip donated truck tires as part of their morning PT training. The nontraditional workouts were introduced by the unit's fitness program monitor.
Airmen with the 32nd Combat Communications Squadron at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., flip donated truck tires as part of their morning PT training. The nontraditional workouts were introduced by the unit's fitness program monitor. (Margo Wright/Air Force)
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Airmen who fail the waist tape could be held to the same body fat standards as the youngest Marines, under new rules for the physical fitness test.

Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh announced in August that airmen who fail the waist measurement component of the PT test would get a second chance if they pass the pushup, situp and 1.5-mile run portions of the test. The Air Force has not yet officially announced what standards those airmen would have to meet, but an internal briefing document obtained by Air Force Times provides a first look at what’s planned.

As of Oct. 1, airmen who fail the waist measurement component of the PT test but receive a composite score of 75 of the remaining 80 points will have their body mass index measured, according to the document. Airmen who fail the BMI screen will then get a body fat assessment.

The maximum BMI for men and women would be 25 regardless of age, the document shows. The equation for BMI is 704.5 multiplied by weight, with the resulting product divided by height squared. Thus an airman standing 5-foot-6 who weighs 155 pounds and another airmen standing 6-feet-2 and weighing 194 pounds would both have a BMI of 25.

On the body fat assessment, men could not have more than 18 percent body fat and women would be limited to 26 percent, the document says. To determine body fat, men would be measured around the neck and abdomen, while women would be measured around the neck, waist and hips.

To calculate body fat percentage, men subtract their neck measurement from their abdominal measurement. Women add the waist and hip measurements and then subtract the neck measurement, the document says. Once airmen get that number, they will look on a Body Fat Percent Table — which is based on height — to determine their body fat.

If the new body fat standards become final, they will be among the toughest in the military. Marines between the ages of 17 and 26 must meet the same standards, but older Marines have more leeway. Both the Army and Navy’s body fat standards are less stringent than what airmen would have to meet.

Meeting the new BMI standard will be an uphill battle for those who fail the waist measurement part of the PT test, according to one airman with experience administering PT tests.

“I have never seen anyone exceed the waist measurement standard and have a BMI equal to or less than 25,” the airman, who asked not to be identified, said in an email. “That is virtually impossible. So, anyone who exceeds the waist measurement standard and then gets 60 or more points from the other three components will certainly be guaranteed to have this new measurement accomplished to determine body fat percentage.”

That would pose a new set of challenges for airmen because measuring body fat can be just as subjective as measuring one’s waist, the airman said.

“I’m not too sure the people measuring those areas will get accurate results, either,” he said. “Just look at how the waist measurement is going. The biggest complaint is that two different people measuring can get very different results.”

Asked about the document, the Air Force refused to say if any of the information is accurate because the new policy on the PT test was not yet final. The official guidance for how to measure BMI and body fat and the walk test are expected to be announced by Oct. 1, when the new rules begin.

“The Fitness Program AFI [Air Force instruction] is going through the finalization process now and is subject to change until it receives final approval and is posted on e-pubs,” Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Rose Richeson said. “The Air Force cannot predict what the final Fitness Program AFI will state.”

Other changes

Another change, according to the internal document, would eliminate airmen’s heart rate from their score on the 1-mile walk test taken by airmen whose doctors recommend that they don’t run. Currently, the Air Force uses a calculation called VO2 max, which measures aerobic fitness with a formula based on a person’s weight, age, gender, walk time and heart rate.

One change already announced is that airmen can appeal their PT scores to their wing commanders or equivalent instead of having to go to the Air Force Board for Correction of Military Records.

Under the new rules, a base fitness program manager would need a wing commander’s approval in writing before deleting an airman’s score from the Air Force Fitness Management System, according to the document.

Airmen who pass the BMI screen or the body fat percentage will be marked “exempt” for the waist measurement in the Air Force Fitness Management System, the document says. Those who fail both the BMI and body fat measurements will be entered as tested.

Size advantage

Between October 2010 and March, a total of 30,174 airmen failed the waist measurement component of the test, according to the Air Force. Of those, 5,141 airmen passed the other three parts of the PT test — 348 of whom scored well enough on the pushups, situps and run to get a passing score overall if the tape test results were not included.

Welsh’s announcement in August came after a review of the Air Force’s physical fitness program that was prompted by complaints from airmen, who said they were fit enough to meet all of the Air Force fitness standards except for the waist measurement due to their muscular build.

Being large proved to be an advantage for Tech. Sgt. Earl Hartlage Jr., a security forces airman with the Kentucky Air National Guard, who told Air Force Times this year that slimmer guys had a problem carrying gear downrange. At the time, the 6-foot-4 airman weighed 280 pounds.

“Who do you want to see at your gate representing and protecting you?” he said. “You’ll think twice before you do something against me versus someone skinny.”

In his Aug. 21 message, Welsh pushed back on the popular perception that many airmen have been kicked out of the Air Force for failing only the waist measurement part of the PT test.

“The fact is that since we started the new Fitness Program [in July 2010], only 76 airmen have been separated from the Air Force for failing only the AC [abdominal circumference] portion of the test multiple times,” he said. “That equates to 0.006% of the airmen tested. It’s certainly difficult for the airmen involved, but it really doesn’t happen that often.”

The Air Force did not provide specific information on the ranks and years of service for those 76 airmen.

Room for interpretation

Airmen will be taped by someone of the same gender except under “rare circumstances,” according to the internal document. If the person taping an airman is the opposite gender, an “observer” of the same gender must be present.

The internal document lists directions on how to measure airmen around neck, waist and hips to determine body fat, but the instructions still leave room for interpretation. For example, the directions for measuring female airmen around the hips say the tape should pass “over the hips at the point that protrudes the farthest.”

“EXCEPTION: Ensure no part of the leg or thigh is part of the measurement,” the directions say. “If so, raise the tape measure up (still keeping it horizontal) to the point in which no part of the leg or thigh is part of the measurement.”


Airmen who fail the waist measurement component but pass the run-walk, pushup and situp components of the physical fitness test have two more chances to get an overall passing grade under rules being finalized by the Air Force:

1. Undergo body mass index screening.

Those with BMI less than or equal to 25.0: Pass

Those with BMI greater than or equal to 25.1: Fail

2. Those who fail BMI screening undergo body fat analysis. Standards differ for men and women.

For men, measurements are taken at neck and waist:

Those with BMI less than or equal to 18%: Pass

Those with BMI greater than or equal to 19%: Fail

For women, measurements are taken at neck, waist and hips:

Those with BMI less than or equal to 26%: Pass

Those with BMI greater than or equal to 27%: Fail


Airmen’s body mass index cannot exceed 25.0 if they are to pass a new measure of physical fitness being finalized by the Air Force. This chart shows the maximum allowed weight, at various heights but regardless of age and gender, that gives you a BMI of 25.0:

Height (in inches) Weight (in pounds)
58 119
59 124
60 128
61 132
62 136
63 141
64 145
65 150
66 155
67 159
68 164
69 169
70 174
71 179
72 184
73 189
74 194
75 200
76 205
77 210
78 216
79 221
80 227


Maximum body fat percentages being finalized by the Air Force appear stricter than those of the other services. All airmen whose body fat is analyzed, regardless of age, would have to meet Defense Department standards of a maximum 18 percent for men and 26 percent for women. Only the Marine Corps requires that level of fitness, and then only for 17- to 26-year-olds:

Air Force

All ages
Men 18%
Women 26%


Ages 17-20 21-27 28-39 40+
Men 20% 22% 24% 26%
Women 30% 32% 34% 36%


Ages 17-39 40+
Men 22% 23%
Women 33% 34%

Marine Corps

Ages 17-26 27-39 40-45 46+
Men 18% 19% 20% 21%
Women 26% 27% 28% 29%

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