US Army Overhauls Fitness Culture, Seeks Collaboration with Health Club Industry

Recent reports from PHIT America and Mission: Readiness have suggested many American adults are not fit enough to serve in the military, even going as far as to call the dilemma a national security risk.

The minds behind the Army’s Holistic Health and Fitness program have resolved to curb this trend—and they're seeking the help of those in the health club industry.

Michael McGurk, director of Research & Analysis at the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training in Fort Eustis, Virginia, said a comprehensive approach is required to best address the health and wellness needs of applicants, recruits and enlisted members. In early March, he told Club Industry the Army's newly introduced Occupational Physical Assessment Test (OPAT) is only the first part of a two- to three-year Holistic Health and Fitness strategy that will dramatically overhaul the culture of health and wellness within the branch.

This includes the forthcoming Army Combat Readiness Test (ACRT), weekly training requirements for members, the construction of specialized wellness facilities on Army bases and special affiliations with public health clubs that will allow applicants to train for and take the OPAT on the premises.

"The Army's changing things," McGurk said. "It's no longer, 'I'm going to join the Army and get in shape.' It's, 'I'm going to get in shape so I can join the Army.'"

The OPAT, introduced in January 2017, now places a greater emphasis on Army applicants' physical strength and aerobic abilities. The ACRT, expected to be introduced in pilot form in 2019, will incorporate weights and elements of high-intensity interval training to ensure soldiers have "explosive power." Both tests are gender- and age-neutral.

Previously, the Army's physical fitness assessment had not been altered since 1980, McGurk said.

Currently, 2,000 locations are able to administer OPAT tests. These are primarily recruiting stations and bases. Eventually, McGurk would like to offer public health clubs the opportunity to become official OPAT testing facilities—a badge he said he hopes club operators would be proud to wear.

"When you buy different products like Gatorade, the bottles will sometimes say 'official product of U.S. Olympic team,'" he said. "For the fitness industry, what would be the value [for club operators] to brand themselves as an OPAT-certified facility? ... And then [health club operators] could give [Army applicants] a free trial membership for six months while they're training for the test. And then they bring [their] friends in, and they get memberships. It could be a good deal for patriotic Americans."

In general, Army bases do not house specialized training centers, McGurk said. Most have general recreation centers that members and their families can utilize, but the amenities are limited. Over the next two years, the Army Holistic Health and Fitness program plans to begin building "one-stop shop” wellness centers on every base, exclusively for enlisted members.

The centers won't just be rooms full of equipment; rather, they will resemble many of today’s most progressive health and wellness facilities, McGurk said. Amenities will include cooking classes, counseling services and advanced physical therapy.

To make each center function, McGurk wants to hire approximately 1,000 fitness and wellness professionals to work for the Army. This includes dietitians, physical therapists and certified athletic trainers.

McGurk told Club Industry he is excited by this prospect but uncertain if the health and wellness industry could even support such a request. Over time, he said the Army will need at least 300 newly hired athletic trainers alone (many of which will work on a contract basis).

In the long term, McGurk said this strategy will cut recruiting costs, limit recruit and member injuries, and help curb the national obesity epidemic.

“If I can spend $75,000 a year on an athletic trainer who can prevent three femoral neck fractures—[which cost] $3 million to taxpayers—I will do that,” he said.