Goodbye Tape Test? The Army Is Reviewing Body Composition Assessments, Standards

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A U.S. Army soldier receives an x-ray absorptiometry scan
A U.S. Army soldier receives an x-ray absorptiometry scan at Fort Bragg, N.C. on Oct. 18, 2021. The scan/study is part of a comprehensive body composition study examining the association between body composition and soldier physical performance (U.S. Army photo by: Pfc. Lilliana Fraser)

The Army has launched a review of its body fat standards in a high-tech study that aims to understand the relationship between height, weight, fat and fitness.

The research study, which began Monday at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, uses body scans and low-dose X-rays, in addition to the dreaded "tape test," and compares the measurements with fitness test results to assess soldiers' physical fitness and readiness.

The study is important, Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston said Tuesday, to determine whether new technologies are more effective than the 30-year-old tape test to measure body fat composition and assess soldiers' overall health.

"The [study] really came from an outpouring of soldiers at just about every stop I've had who want to know about the [Army Combat Fitness Test] and then they want to know if we're going to do something about height and weight standards," Grinston told reporters during a roundtable from Fort Bragg on Tuesday.

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Most U.S. troops must meet certain height and weight requirements, depending on their branch of service. If service members are close to or over their maximum weight allowance for their height, they face being measured for body fat percentage with a measuring tape.

Men are taped at their neck and waist, while women are measured at the neck, waist and hips, and the numbers are then crunched to determine body fat percentage.

Those who don't meet the standard must go into weight control programs or face dismissal from the military.

Body mass indexes and body fat percentage measures have long been criticized as being outdated, unfairly singling out athletes with significant bulk -- such as football players and weightlifters, as well as women and minorities -- whose body mass index might calculate as overweight or obese without taking into account their fitness.

With troops complaining that the tape test is an inaccurate gauge of fitness, the new study by the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training and the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine seeks to find out whether they have a point.

"While we could debate over what the ideal weight is for any one height, we know that there's a relationship, and we're looking at what that relationship should be," said Michael McGurk,

director of research and analysis at the Center for Initial Military Training. "What we want to do is have the best body weight related to height -- the best possible."

The research, which will run through Oct. 29 at Fort Bragg and later elsewhere, uses four different methods for measuring body composition and compares the results to soldiers' Army Physical Fitness Test and Army Combat Fitness Test.

The four measurements include:

  • A 3D full-body surface scanner, which computes a variety of body circumferences based on the amount of muscle and fat a person has in their bodies.
  • A low-dose X-ray known as dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry, or DXA, to measure a soldier's soft-tissue fat, lean components and bone density.
  • Bioelectrical impedance analysis, a 60-second scan that measures body composition and body water levels using low-level electric currents.
  • The traditional AR 600-9 tape test.

Grinston said the goal is not to toss out Army standards but to better understand fitness, body types and the relationship between the two.

"We do need to be fit to do our mission and, fundamentally, if [you're] at a certain weight that could be harmful, either to you in combat or it could be harmful to you in future health ... 'Is this healthy as a person?' That would be my question," Grinston said.

In addition to an understanding about body fat and fitness, the study may yield findings on the relationship between weight and orthopedic injuries, as well as the fitness of service members who are in recovery from childbirth, officials said.

The Army is seeking to recruit 2,000 soldiers for the research, which it plans to conduct at additional sites, although it did not announce specific posts.

Volunteers are needed of all shapes and sizes, and officials said they are seeking various races and ethnicities and aim to have at least one-third of participants be women. The service also plans to include National Guard and Reserve members.

"If you want to volunteer, let your unit know," Grinston said. "If you think you're not represented and you've got a unique body type, we're asking for all those body types to come out."

The Marine Corps launched a similar study earlier this year, with officials saying their study, also conducted with the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, was the most technologically advanced review of body composition standards in 30 years.

Officials said preliminary findings of the Army study may be available by December, with more information provided in March 2022.

Whether the study results in changes to body composition standards, body fat calculations or abolishment of the tape tests remains to be seen. Grinston said that previous reviews of the measurement process have validated the effectiveness and efficiency of the tape test, and he emphasized that soldiers must remain as fit as athletes.

"The answer may not change, but it's heartening to know that [we] looked at it again," he said.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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