contributor perspectives

Dec 24, 2018 | 07:00 GMT

7 mins read

Tracking the Military's Hands-on Approach to Exercise Science

Board of Contributors
Thomas M. Hunt
Board of Contributors
Keeping soldiers healthy and in shape has always been a part of military strategy. Advances in exercise science and biomechanics have made that easier to achieve.
(U.S. Army)
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.
  • As general overall fitness declines, the U.S. military is looking for ways to keep its troops healthy and in shape.
  • Advances in exercise science, biomechanics and health behavior are influencing military policy.
  • U.S. service branches are embracing change, including embedding athletic trainers with operational units, to stem the tide of injuries among personnel.

A few of you may remember an article that I wrote back in May which addressed the impact that declining U.S. fitness standards was having on the country's military preparedness. If I recall correctly, I sparked a bit of controversy by suggesting that one option for attracting and retaining sufficient personnel in such key technology areas as cyber and electronic warfare would be to ease fitness requirements. In any event, it so happened that Joint Base San Antonio (a component of which is Lackland Air Force Base) contacted The University of Texas at Austin a few weeks later to see whether any of our faculty in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education might be interested in helping revamp the fitness program used in the U.S. Air Force's basic training, which is delivered at Lackland.

The very suggestion that the military should reduce its fitness standards in some areas is a surefire way to attract condemnation, especially from those who have served.

While the department ultimately did not participate, I should add that my article had absolutely nothing to do with the solicitation, which was put forth both because of Lackland's proximity to Austin and the research expertise of my UT colleagues. This would be a good time to mention the typical reaction I get when I mention my work: "Oh … you do physical education." There's more to it than that, I'd reply, explaining that the department is filled with a group of faculty and students studying a diversity of subjects (only a portion of which is physical education). In addition to my close colleagues who study sports history and management, there's another set of scholars who focus on the intersection of sports and the social and applied sciences of biomechanics, exercise science and health behavior.

One can find astonishing records of achievement on their respective curriculum vitae, including work that has had a tremendous influence on the military. During a 30-year-plus career after joining the department back in 1952, for instance, Professor Karl K. Klein took part in federally funded studies on sports injury prevention, which led to the removal of deep knee bends in military training. My current colleagues have continued in that tradition. Around a decade ago, physiologist Edward Coyle and biochemist and neuroscientist Steve Kornguth were involved in projects funded by the U.S. Army that examined the impact of sleep deprivation on cognitive and physical performance. In addition, Kornguth has participated in research that led to the development of biological and chemical weapons countermeasures. And he is currently working on studies that pertain to traumatic brain injuries and microconcussions in both the sport and military realms.

Science, research and rigorous study has a large part to play in refining approaches to physical fitness and training as well as mitigating the impact of combat and trauma on personnel.

In addition, biomechanics specialists like Jonathan Dingwell, who recently left UT for Penn State, have worked on projects with the goal of improving functional outcomes for veterans wounded in combat. Indeed, research such as his on the biomechanics of human movement have played key roles in improved prosthetic devices. Another colleague whose work focuses on neuromuscular control, Lisa Griffin, is currently taking part in an interdisciplinary research grant application to the U.S. Navy on a project that could eventually lead to more advanced man-machine interactions. This, the military believes, will one day be a key battlefield technology. 

Some of our former students have also made key contributions to the military. For five years, for example, one of our doctoral graduates in health education, Army Col. Barbara Springer, served as national director of Project Hero, a nonprofit tasked with helping veterans and first responders struggling to cope with wounds or other injuries. She is now a research physical therapist at Walter Reed National Medical Center. Yet another holder of a doctorate, Col. Deydre S. Teyhen, is the current commander of the U.S. Army Health Clinic at Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and is scheduled to take command of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in the fall.

Beyond the applied research arena, sport science is, of course, well-situated to help the military address the fitness crisis among recruits and active duty personnel.

One of our most promising graduate students, Josephine "Tres" Hinds, a West Point graduate and Blackhawk helicopter pilot, spent 15 months in Iraq as a flight company platoon leader and officer in charge of battalion flight operations. She experienced first-hand some of the physical and psychological challenges of combat, while observing the general degradation of physical fitness evident in some newer trainees. She pointed me to a nonprofit called Mission: Readiness (external link) that strives to support "evidence-based, bipartisan state and federal public policy solutions that are proven to prepare our youth to be citizen-ready and able to serve their nation in any way they choose." The general declining fitness levels among young people in the United States are a core point of concern for the group.

The equipment and personnel housed in the Fitness Institute of Texas work every day on this problem. The institute's executive director, Phil Stanforth, said the facility performs around 3,000 fitness assessments every year and serves a number of key research functions. It is equipped to measure everything from balance, body composition and bone density to resting metabolic rate and cardiorespiratory and musculoskeletal fitness. The U.S. military has consulted Stanforth in the past. In 1999, he and UT kinesiology professors John Bartholomew and Jack Wilmore led a team on behalf of the Air Force's School of Aerospace Medicine to develop a better protocol for assessing the aerobic fitness levels of service personnel.

But the nation is not only less fit — it is also less physically coordinated. The result is a much higher rate of musculoskeletal injury than historical norms. For 15 years now, the U.S. Marine Corps began to assign athletic trainers to recruit-training centers. It now realizes that such personnel are needed in operational units as well. Over the next four years, it accordingly plans to devote some $8.6 million annually in an effort to equip each of the three active-duty Marine Expeditionary Forces with an appropriate number of athletic trainers. And the Marines are not alone in realizing the importance of these individuals. In fact, all of the service branches, including their various special operations forces, use athletic trainers to support their missions.

A black and white picture of some old school British Army PTIs. The Royal Army Physical Training Corps was founded in 1860.

A military focus on physical training is nothing new. The British Army founded the Royal Army Physical Training Corps (originally the Army Gymnastic Staff) in 1860, to address the poor levels of fitness shown by British soldiers in the Crimean war

(Copyright the Royal Army Physical Training Corps Museum)

Given societal trends and technological advances, sport and exercise science will only become more important to military operations. Last month, an Air Force Times article profiled the Human Performance Support Group, a unit within the service's new Special Warfare Training Wing, at Lackland. In the article, Laura Mertz, an athletic trainer with the group, described the template by which the unit would operate: "We're trying to model it off of a college sports medicine model, where we have athletic trainers on site, and we have other providers who are able to come by as needed — and they come by rather routinely." The goal, said wing commander Col. James Hughes, is to endow Air Force Special Warfare trainees with "the most efficient and effective methods for improving human performance."

Wearable fitness trackers offer a glimpse into where all of this is headed. The military has for some time been involved in the development of methods to track in real time the physiological data from its troops both on the battlefield and the training ground. There will be challenges in this undertaking, of course. Over the past year, several reports have surfaced that security flaws in fitness trackers have allowed outside parties to monitor the location of U.S. military personnel. Nevertheless, the fact remains that sport and exercise science will continue to evolve and serve even a greater role in military training and operations.

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