SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE — Air Force Staff Sgt. Christopher Hess, 28, doesn't worry about passing the Air Force waist measurement test.
Hess, a bomb disposal technician, works out hard and often with colleagues from the 375th Engineering Squadron.
One day last week, Hess got ready for one of their regular workouts in the James Sports Complex's functional fitness room. Joining him were 1st Lt. Perry Cansick, 24, and 2nd Lt. Ben Liptak, 23.
"First thing in the morning we're at the gym," Hess said. "It creates a more positive attitude and outlook throughout the day to just get the PT going, get your blood flowing, wake up, get strong."
The workout left them drenched in sweat and panting hard, but also confident they'll pass their next Air Force fitness test with no problem.
For airmen hoping to make the military a career in an era of shrinking budgets and workforce needs, the stakes could hardly be higher. Failing the fitness test could mean losing out on promotions or being discharged early.
Which is why new Air Force fitness standards, which center on body composition and took effect Oct. 21, are attracting so much attention.
To pass the fitness tests, airmen must achieve a score of 75 out of 100 for meeting weighted benchmarks based on age and gender for four tests: push-ups, sit-ups, a 1.5-mile run and a tape measurement of abdominal circumference.
The abdominal circumference for men can't exceed 39 inches, while women can't exceed 35.5 inches.
"I always say they give you the answer to the test," Liptak said. "You know exactly what the answer to the test is, how to pass it, and it's not extremely hard to do that."
Maybe so for young airmen in prime physical condition.
But for middle-aged, mid-career Air Force members, the abdominal tape test has often proven problematic. Critics contend the tape measure test is outdated and used mainly because it's cheap and easy to administer, not because it's necessarily an accurate way to determine military fitness.
The Air Force policy that took effect last month allows airmen who scored at least 75 points on the other portions of the test, but failed the tape measure test, to take what is known as the body mass index test, or BMI.
The BMI is a ratio of height to weight, and it's computed with the help of a formula that spits out a number. If a male airman's number exceeds 25, he fails the BMI test.
In that event, airmen can take a body fat assessment, or BFA. If they pass either the BMI screen or BFA, they will pass the body composition component of the fitness test.
But fitness experts were quick to criticize the Air Force's new policy.
Kenneth Fernandez, a certified personal trainer, told the website Athletic Business that BMI is often inaccurate because, "due to the height component, a short muscular person might still be considered obese."
Jordan Moon, the director of the Sports Science Center Research Center, in Denver, called the Air Force's addition of the BMI test "a step forward," but cautioned that "I don't know if it's necessarily a step in the right direction."
Moon praised the Air Force for at least acknowledging the tape test might not be accurate in some cases.
"The problem with the BMI is, if you pass all the physical performances but fail the tape test, there's a very good chance you'll fail the BMI test," he said.
Moon said the tape test, like the BMI test, works well for most members of the population.
"But when you're outside those norms, when you're in that 95th percentile of body size or different structure, it's virtually going to be impossible for anybody to get an accurate read on you," Moon said. "What the Army, the Air Force, what everybody is saying is if you don't fit that norm, then we don't care how good you are performance-wise, we don't want you."
Military personnel seek liposuction
The outcry over the Air Force's abdominal tape measure test intensified last March, when news hit that Col. Tim Bush, 47, the commander of the 319th Air Base Wing in Grand Forks, N.D., was relieved of his command because his waist measure exceeded the maximum of 39 inches.
Bush, who stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 227 pounds, and whose service record was described as "impeccable," had passed the standards for his age and gender for push-ups, sit-ups and the 1.5-mile run, according to the Grand Forks Herald newspaper.
"But I'm not a little guy," Bush told the newspaper. "I am not in the best shape of my life. I spend a lot more time doing administrative work than I would like."
Bush's firing as base commander marked the first time the Air Mobility Command, based at Scott, had removed a senior officer from the command of an air base for failing to meet physical fitness standards.
More than 30,000 airmen have failed the waist measurement test out of the 1.3 million airmen who have taken Air Force fitness tests between October 2010 and March 2013, Pentagon figures show.
During the 2012 fiscal year, nearly 1,400 airmen were forced to exit the Air Force because they failed the fitness test.
In other branches of the service, new fitness standards have also led to sharp increases in troops being kicked out because they are considered too fat to fight.
Last month, the Associated Press reported that some troops are turning to liposuction to remove excess fat from their bodies to pass Pentagon body fat tests.
Dr. Michael Pasquale, a Honolulu plastic surgeon, told the AP his military client base has soared by nearly 30 percent since 2011.
"They have to worry about their careers," Pasquale said. "With the military downsizing, it's putting more pressure on these guys."
Some critics of Air Force fitness standards contend they are an easy way for the military to get rid of older, more experienced personnel during an era of shrinking budgets.
Master Sgt. Reginald Porter, whose job it is to advise Scott units on how to meet the fitness criteria, denied the fitness standards are being used in that way.
"With the military doing the right-sizing, they have specific standards," Porter said. "And if you can't meet them, then the Air Force gives you plenty of time" to meet them.
Porter noted that an airman must fail the physical testing four times within 24 months to be merit a discharge.
"Basically, the rationale is we got to be fit to fight," Porter said, noting that airmen on deployment are often sent to austere locations. "The better shape you're in the more effective you'll be. You'll be an asset versus a liability. That's why the Air Force goes through the standards of assessing everybody to make sure we're fit to fight."
An Air Force-wide email from Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, explaining the new standards back in August noted that 76 airmen have been separated from the Air Force for failing only the waist measure test multiple times.
"That equates to 0.006 % of the airmen tested," Welsh wrote. "It's certainly difficult for the airmen involved, but it really doesn't happen that often."
Moon, the exercise physiologist from Denver, nonetheless criticized the Air Force's reliance on what he described as a fitness testing system that is 30 to 40 years behind the curve of exercise physiology and that lacks a sound basis in data.
If an airman's performance on the physical portion of the test "is off the charts" and medical tests show he's good health with little risk of heart disease "then why does it matter how big you are?" Moon said. "That's my issue with it. They're not coming forward and saying why. They're just saying, 'We're just doing this for health, for fitness.' OK, show me data. There's no data."
Somebody needs "to step up and say, 'Is this really for health?" Moon said. "Or is this just an image thing? Or are we just trying to weed out these older, mid-career guys?"
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at email@example.com or 618-239-2533.
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2533.