The Space Force’s wearable fitness tech plan could have punitive consequences after all
Fears that the Space Force’s new fitness program will lead to micromanagement and punishment for undertraining, and the risk that personal data will be used against Guardians, are circling around the service’s development of plans to deploy wearable health trackers.
Holistic Health Assessment, the Space Force’s response to the military’s annual physical fitness tests, has been touted by the service as a revolutionary way for Guardians to stay in shape year-round. The Space Force hopes that by 2023, troops will routinely wear fitness trackers similar to Apple Watches or Fitbits, so they can focus on their health at all times instead of getting out of shape and then a punitive — or potentially career-ending — assessment to fear .
But as Space Force fitness leaders visit bases to present the program during so-called “roadshows” and share their ideas for assessment, some Guardians have complained that the proposed futuristic health plan may not turn out as originally planned.
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During a “roadshow” at a Colorado base, the program was described as having some punitive consequences for guards who fail to meet certain thresholds, despite early indications that the service does not penalize service members based on the data they collect would the portable devices.
While Space Force Command, responding to a request from Military.com, citing ongoing development, declined to discuss details of the program, a recording of a presentation with a question-and-answer session on the holistic health assessment was posted on the YouTube Account published by Space Force Peterson-Schriever Garrison. The undated video was unlisted, meaning it won’t show up in searches and on the Garrison’s YouTube page, but was spotted by Military.com.
“There’s a lot of socializing about this being a non-punitive program and taking all the punishment away from fitness, and there’s some truth to that, but there’s still going to be a piece of accountability,” Carl Sheppard, a strength and conditioning specialist, who working on the development of the program with the Space Force, said during the presentation.
Plans put in place during the roadshow to keep the Guardians on track for the new fitness program included monitoring service members’ equipment to ensure they are getting about 300 minutes of targeted physical activity per week, monitoring their muscle oxygen consumption and observing their height-to-waist ratio to ensure they maintain a fit physique.
A “Guardian Resilience Team,” a group of service members at each base specializing in fitness and training, would monitor data provided by the wearable fitness machines to track who is staying behind.
The Guardians’ data is analyzed and classified under a color code – red when they’re failing, yellow when they’re average and green when they’re on track and exceeding expectations, officials said during the presentation.
When the program was originally launched, Space Force Chief Master Sergeant Roger Towberman told Military.com in March that he wanted to get away from “disciplinary, punitive intervention” for a failed annual test.
But during the “roadshow” it became clear that lagging Guardians could be punished.
An officer who presented during the roadshow — and did not identify herself on the presentation tape — said she understands that some people with different walks of life can suffer fitness levels, but noted, “When someone’s red for a quarter , that’s when Command will intervene.”
A Guardian, who spoke to Military.com on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media without permission, said there are concerns the program could be punitive and lead to similar problems that the Air Force has seen – how people have evidence of eating disorders to make the standards.
“I think it’s ok for so long [as] it is not punishable [and] as long as you take care of yourself,” the Guardian said. “It will be interesting to see how it is implemented.”
While there’s no annual test to fret about, some Guardians have grumbled via the Space Force subreddit that having to monitor a variety of fitness factors every week sounds exhausting, even daunting — and not exactly setup without it test they were promised.
More than 200 Guardians have responded to a sarcastic multiple-choice poll posted on the subreddit that asked, “What do you think of the PT changes?”
More than half of respondents chose “The new testing scheme sounds amazing (I love micromanagement!!!)” or “Just let me test ‘or twice’ a year (being an adult.)”
The others would reply, “Wait…Space Force is doing PT???” or “I’m getting out, I don’t care!”
“We are outlining the parameters to study, test and evaluate various metrics including healthy sleep habits, diet, regular exercise and aerobic capacity,” said Maj. James Fisher, a spokesman for the Space Force, in an emailed statement Explanation. “Depending on what we learn from our testing phase, we hope to move away from episodic fitness training and into testing with a new program that focuses on holistic health.”
Reliance on personal fitness trackers has raised concerns among military security experts, particularly after previous incidents where such data shared on social media revealed the locations of military bases and patrol routes.
It’s not clear which devices Space Force will ultimately go for, but the service plans to offer Guardians a wide range of choices.
Some Guardians raised concerns about how the Space Force and Department of Defense might use and analyze their data in the future.
A guard, whose name was not heard in the “roadshow” video, said during a question-and-answer portion of the show that he didn’t want his health data used against him if he hoped to know for sure Care from a Veterans Affairs Hospital in the future.
“By the time I retire, they will have potentially two decades of health data on me,” another Guardian said during the question-and-answer session. “Any problem that you happen to have in two decades of experience is because there’s also two decades of data that says, ‘You haven’t run enough’ or ‘He hasn’t exercised enough,’ and you might too could limit someone’s access to health care in retirement. I think that’s one reason why I might choose not to.”
Space Force officials have said they have no plans to track GPS data and it would not be shared with other agencies. Sheppard, the strength and conditioning coach who helped with the presentation, said the service doesn’t keep her information for long.
“The Space Force will own this data and we are evaluating how long we will keep it,” Sheppard told Guardians during the roadshow. “One year, two years, and then we will … cryptographically erase the data.”
Since the initial announcement in March, little information about the wearables program has been publicly shared by Space Force.
“The purpose of the roadshow is NOT to provide information,” Towberman wrote on the Space Force subreddit last month. “The purpose is to reduce fear and improve confidence throughout the MIT information force. If the road show doesn’t scratch [that] Itch, we’ll have failed.”
Space Force’s plans to develop a revolutionary fitness program come amid a recent shift by many services to move away from a single test, where the result can often mean the difference between career advancement and departure from the force.
Until the program wraps up next year, the Guardians have been told to rely on the Air Force’s decades-old PT test, which includes sit-ups, push-ups and a 1.5-mile run.
Other proposed parts of the Space Force holistic health assessment that have not been widely discussed would encourage regular sleep patterns, promote a balanced diet and reduce alcohol consumption, and set aside time for meaningful meditation and reflection.
“This program will not only promote physical fitness, but will combine fitness with sound education about nutrition, sleep, hygiene and other physiological factors to also promote social, mental and spiritual health,” said Fisher, spokesman for the Space Force.
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