Space Force has begun a two-year pilot program to see how well it can manage the fitness of its troops with a much lighter touch than is typical in the military.
Through June 30, the newest branch of the US military is asking members to volunteer for a study that monitors their heart, respiratory and musculoskeletal health using Garmin watches and Oura rings. If the initiative goes well, it could pave the way for the Pentagon’s first large-scale system for tracking readiness using wearable technology instead of annual fitness tests.
“We’re really trying to pioneer across the DoD a better way to support our members throughout their lives, during their service and beyond,” James Christensen, who directs the study at the Air Force Research Laboratory, said in an episode. podcast service released Tuesday.
The program is one of three pillars of Space Force’s new plan to promote health across the force, formally announced Wednesday.
The effort is to drive home the proposition that fitness is about more than going to the gym. It emphasizes a more holistic range of “preventive health” habits to help ward off illness and complications and promote mental well-being, such as good nutrition and sleep practices. And it includes an educational component, to add these concepts to an existing training.
“I think physical fitness not only improves our cognitive skills at work, it decreases absenteeism, it increases happiness — there are all kinds of benefits,” Space Force Chief Sgt. Roger Towberman said on the podcast.
Space Force’s willingness to break the mold recognizes how ubiquitous wearable fitness technology has become in modern life and the hope that the service can avoid the pitfalls of other military fitness regimes that prioritize standards over performance.
Because space operations involve more desk work — like sitting at a satellite control console or monitoring missile launch data on a computer — than other military missions, Space Force officials want to judge members on overall well-being. instead of specific strength and endurance exercises.
Any Space Force uniformed guardian may participate in the wearables study. Those who do so will be exempt from regular physical fitness testing while participating.
PT testing is suspended for all guardians until July 1 while people decide if they want to enroll in the study. Those who opt out must resume annual testing as usual by the end of September.
Throughout the pilot, guardians will be asked to wear their trackers during the exercise so that Space Force can collect this data from device manufacturers.
Researchers will look at how intensely people exercise, based on the minutes they record in an elevated heart rate, said service spokeswoman Major Tanya Downsworth. They will also track how much oxygen a person’s body uses during a workout, a metric known as VO2 max, each month.
Guardians are also required to log up to one minute of push-ups a month, Downsworth said.
Troops will not be punished for their results, but if the service discovers that their approach is harming a guardian instead of helping, or if a guardian is not following the terms of the study, they may be asked to desist.
Deputy Chief of Space Operations General David Thompson, the service’s No. 2 officer, warned troops not to overdo it.
“The pattern is not, ‘Wow, I have to go to the gym five times a week and work out [for] two hours,” he said. “The pattern really fits what we want people to do healthy anyway — about three times a week you get your heart rate up for 30 to 45 minutes.”
For now, anyone joining the study will have to wear devices emitted by the Space Force. If a participant already owns a Garmin or Oura product, they can use their own.
The service considered more automated options for tracking its members’ health, but scaled back due to privacy concerns.
“Participants are only required to use their devices during intentional physical activity, and all other uses are optional,” the service said, noting that it will not collect GPS data.
“Data imported from the wearable device manufacturer will be limited to the fitness data needed for the program and will be stored on a system that has been assessed for cybersecurity compliance” and authorized to operate over military networks,” he added. “Only limited study personnel with a need to know will have access to the information.”
People who work in sensitive compartmentalized information facilities should talk to their supervisor about whether they can use their devices in these classified areas, but that’s not mandated in the study, Thompson said. Some guardians abroad will not be able to participate due to regional security concerns.
Guardians who do not adhere to the study will continue to take Department of the Air Force fitness tests, a running or walking battery, and muscle strength and endurance exercises such as push-ups and sit-ups. They must also continue to meet Air Force body composition standards, which changed to include a waist-to-height ratio measurement last month.
To help all Guardians, no matter what path they choose to take, the Space Force is assembling support teams focused on nutrition, movement and mental health. These groups are scheduled to be fully populated, largely by civilian employees, at each Space Force base in early 2024.
“We believe this is a gateway to cultural shifts within units, where we can gamify fitness, where we can have that all-important friendly competition between offices, between individuals,” said Towberman. “There has never been a successful military man in history who didn’t physically train together as teams.”
Rachel Cohen joined the Air Force Times as a senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, Frederick News-Post (Md.), Washington Post and others.