The Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry, or DXA.

The Army is wrapping up research on how best to measure a soldier’s body fat — but the service’s controversial tape test might not be dead yet.

The Army is in the midst of totally revamping health and fitness for its soldiers with its new fitness test possibly becoming official in the spring. This week, researchers measured the body fat of more than 600 volunteer soldiers at Fort Lee, Virginia, with sophisticated and expensive scanning tools that could replace the old tape measurements.

The scanners had been used back in October at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, when 1,400 paratroopers were measured.

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Since 1983, a tape measure was used to gauge whether a soldier was in compliance with weight standards, analyzing their stomach and neck. That 200-year-old method of measuring someone’s body mass index, or BMI, as a means to track obesity has largely been panned for its inaccuracies.

The Army’s goal as part of its scanning research is to measure the body fat of 3,000 soldiers with a representative sample of ethnicities, ages and genders, along with a diversity of military occupations such as infantry and mechanics, with three different machines ranging in size and expense.

That data will be used to analyze whether the force needs to revamp how it measures a soldier’s weight, which could mean adopting one of the body scanning tools, or changing how a tape measure is used to measure body fat. The study follows complaints from troops that the tape test is outdated, sometimes unfairly categorizing muscular soldiers, particularly women, as overweight.

“We’re an evolving Army; we’re due to relook at this again,” Brig. Gen. John Kline, commander for the Army’s Center for Initial Military Training, told Military.com in an interview Thursday. “We’re acknowledging the sentiment on social media and across the U.S. in general.”

Efforts to fine-tune body fat measurements come as the Army Combat Fitness Test, or ACFT, is on the verge of becoming the service’s official graded fitness test in April. However, that test still faces huge hurdles, including logistical problems administering the test; skepticism from the rank and file, along with Congress; and comments made by Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth, who expressed concerns during her confirmation hearing that the test might hurt the recruitment and retention of women into the force.

The Three Dimensional Body Scan uses infrared lasers to collect over 2 million data points in less than two minutes. Cost to the Army: $10,000 – $15,000. (Military.com photo by Steve Beynon)

Military.com obtained early Army data showing half of the service’s women couldn’t pass the test, and very few could perform well.

“This will be a really good data pool. What we’re looking at is how one’s body mass correlates with their ability to perform on the ACFT. That’s an area I’m very interested in,” Kline added.

So far, some 2,000 soldiers have been measured across Fort Bragg and Fort Lee. Yet the service is lacking data from the National Guard and active-duty troops from certain age ranges and racial groups. Army officials are considering a third study that is expected to focus on the Guard. Yet, it could be difficult for researchers to coordinate with Guard units, whose members are usually on duty for only one weekend a month.

Right now, a massive gap in the data comes from a lack of participation from women between the ages of 17 and 25. Some researchers interviewed by Military.com think that is mostly due to it being uncomfortable for young women to have their body fat measured in public.

The machines the Army is using in lieu of a measuring tape are far more accurate, and some soldiers interviewed said their body fat results were much higher — sometimes the difference between slightly overweight and obese.

“There are certainly some hurt feelings here,” one Army staff sergeant, who said their body fat on the tape test was 19% but the machine measurements showed them at 26%, told Military.com. “This has been an eye-opener for me.”

The Army is also missing all age groups of Asian and Pacific Islander soldiers; American Indian and Alaskan Native soldiers; and troops over 50 years old, because of a small pool of volunteers from those groups. Because of the expense of shipping all the body scanning equipment, Army officials are considering finding troops in these demographics and flying them out to a research site.

The machines used to scan soldiers’ bodies would be a massive cost to the force if they were fielded to units, and logistics of access for Guard and Reserve units could quickly get complicated. Researchers say the three types of scanners aren’t in competition, and the Army may still stick with the tape test as it takes the cost and practicality of the gear into account and whether the added accuracy is worth the bang for the buck.

The tools include a scale for soldiers to stand on, similar to equipment seen at some civilian gyms. Troops can get data on their body fat and muscle mass in two minutes. That tool costs around $15,000, according to Army documents provided to Military.com. The other is a 3D body scanner, which requires soldiers to mostly undress and step into a private space to be scanned. That tool also costs about $15,000 to $20,000 per unit and takes two minutes to complete a scan.

The Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis, or BIA.
The Bioelectrical Impedance Analysis, or BIA, uses low-level electrical currents flowing throughout the body. It’s portable, but results can be impacted based on a soldier’s water and food intake before testing. Cost to the Army: $10,000 – $15,000. (Military.com photo by Steve Beynon)

The most expensive machine, ranging between $50,000 and $100,000 has soldiers lie down for a scan. It also takes the longest, about 12 minutes per soldier. That tool, researchers say, is a health industry standard — mostly used by athletic teams. It’s also more accurate than the other two options. However, the high price and large size of the machine is being taken into account.

Both the body composition study and ACFT are part of the Army’s push toward holistic health, motivated by the needs for a fit force ready for close combat and to reduce injuries that can be costly for both the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. It’s part of a wider campaign to combat a national obesity crisis that some have pointed to as a national security concern.

“It’s more than body fat; it’s about health and appearance,” Michael McGurk, director of research and analysis at the Center for Initial Military Training, told Military.com. “When you increase body fat, you can increase risk for heart disease, diabetes, musculoskeletal injuries and joint pain. That has a cost to the Army. There has traditionally been an emphasis on appearance as well, presenting a neat and soldierly appearance — which may have changed over time, which is why we’re looking at this.”

But struggling with weight and body fat measurements sometimes leads to unhealthy eating habits. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42.5% of American adults are obese — seriously curtailing who is eligible to serve in the military.

“I have to work overnight,” a junior soldier told Military.com. “It’s hard because all that’s available around here is gas station food and McDonald’s. Usually before a weigh-in, I’d stop eating a lot for a month or so.”

— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: Can the Army’s New Fitness Test Survive Critics and Become Official in April?

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