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Opinion: Maybe it’s Time to Re-Think Our Notion of “Physical Fitness”

“Had ‘Old Guts and Gaiters’ ever been required to undergo the RMC PPT test, it is highly unlikely he would ever have been offered so much as a Second Lieutenant’s commission.”

Opinion: Maybe it’s Time to Re-Think Our Notion of “Physical Fitness”

By 12570 Mike Kennedy (Feature photo)

The recent article in e-Veritas about the impending return of the (in)famous 1.5 mile run, and the comments that it precipitated from various readers, got me thinking. In certain respects, this latest turn of events may be one more manifestation of the age-old truism that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. But it also gives me cause to wonder whether the time has come to go back to the proverbial drawing board, and do some fundamental re-thinking of our notions of what physical fitness really is, and equally important, how we should seek to develop and maintain it among today’s generation of cadets.

The first thing that struck me about last week’s article was, with the return of the mile-and-a-half, the current generation of cadets will now be required to complete what is essentially the exact same test that was used when I was a cadet 40 years ago. The only difference is that back in the mid-1970’s cadets did chin-ups (you had to do 17 to obtain the maximum score); today’s cadets do pushups instead. Apart from that, we are continuing to measure cadets’ fitness using the exact same yardsticks that were in place four decades ago – this despite the tremendous advances in scientific research and our understanding of the fundamentals of health and wellness that have taken place since that time.

At first glance, it would seem that the PPT test has a number of advantages to recommend it. The test itself is simple and inexpensive to administer, a cadet’s performance is easy to measure and evaluate, and taken together, the five components should (at least theoretically) provide a reasonably accurate overall picture of the participant’s level of fitness. Fair enough. But upon closer examination, I would suggest that there are three inherent problems with the test itself that raise questions about its overall value.

The first is that testing is done almost entirely indoors, and under ideal conditions. While this may yield what seems like a meaningful evaluation, I would argue that it is probably far from a reliable indicator of how an individual is likely to perform amid the stress and confusion of a real-life battlefield.

The second problem I see with the test is, some of the events bear virtually no resemblance to the kinds of challenges that military members can expect to encounter in an operational environment. Realistically, how likely is it that a soldier out in the field will ever be required to do a standing long jump, or complete something like the agility run ? But these two events count for fully 40% of the overall evaluation. And as we know, a difference of a few inches on the long jump, or a second or two on the agility run, can have a huge impact on a cadet’s test results.

My understanding that the FORCE program that was introduced a few years back was designed specifically to incorporate events that measure fitness by simulating common military tasks. It seems like a much more realistic way to evaluate an individual’s overall fitness for real-life military service. Yet at RMC, we cling to the same methodologies that were first developed nearly a half-century ago.

Maybe the biggest problem with the testing process is that it only measures certain things, and makes no accommodation for individual differences. Readers will recall that back in the 1970’s, at the time I was a cadet, the College was an all-male institution. At that time, there was one standardized test which everyone had to complete, irrespective of height, weight, body type, or level of athletic ability. Perhaps not surprisingly, the more athletic cadets tended to breeze through the test with frequently impressive results, most managed to achieve a satisfactory standing, and some (I admit I was one of them) struggled with certain components of the test.

Sometimes, however, this process had unintended and truly regrettable consequences that could have been prevented. I remember hearing the story of one well-respected cadet, a champion swimmer who routinely walked away from meets with a fistful of medals, who was released midway through his third year for inability to pass the test. This poor lad apparently could not run to save his life, and for him, the mile-and-a-half was the nail that evidently sealed his coffin shut. As a result, what might have been an otherwise very promising and successful military career was prematurely extinguished, for reasons that were at best highly questionable.

In my view, the biggest problem with standardized tests of any kind is, they invariably have their limitations. They are effective only insofar as to what they actually measure, and meaningful only to the extent that what is measured is actually relevant. And sometimes, it can become all too easy to view the test as being an end unto itself, as opposed to a means to serving a larger and much more important overall purpose.

If standardized testing does have a place, I might suggest that the best place for it would be during the recruitment process. A physical fitness test of the kind that has long been used at RMC would undoubtedly be helpful in identifying applicants who likely have s superior level of fitness, and could be equally valuable in screening out those who clearly do not.

But once prospective cadets have passed that initial hurdle, I really question the value of requiring them to complete the same test over and over again. It was interesting to note the comments in last week’s article about the “measurable improvement” in cadets’ performance on the fitness test. The question I would pose is, does this phenomenon really reflect a dramatic improvement in their overall level of fitness ? Or could it more accurately be described as the improvement that takes place as cadets become more experienced and proficient in completing the various components of the test – a case of “practice makes perfect” ?

I would suggest that the time may have come to take a fundamentally different approach to promoting the desired standard of fitness among current and future generations of cadets. I would in fact go so far as to say that maybe the time has come to ditch the now time-honoured but decades-old fitness test, and redirect future developmental efforts to where they will do the most good. To traditionalists, and I realize there are many among us, this probably sounds like heresy. But I do believe it is an option that is at least worthy of some serious consideration.

For example, one possibility that could be explored might be to introduce a new initiative somewhat akin to the martial arts program that was developed and implemented by the U.S. Marine Corps in the early 2000’s. For those not familiar with this program, it consists of a standardized curriculum that incorporates unarmed combat techniques drawn from a variety of widely-practiced martial arts, and that allows participants to earn belts of various colours that signify different levels of proficiency. Recruits are first introduced to the program in basic training, and all Marines are expected to progress to at least the level of green belt, the first level at which they are deemed to be sufficiently competent to instruct others. Once green belt is attained, Marines are strongly encouraged to continue their training, and earn higher belts that reflect a correspondingly greater repertoire of knowledge and skills.

From what I understand, this program has been a huge success for the Marine Corps. Apart from the improved fitness and practical self-defence skills that participants acquire, the program has resulted in other important benefits, including a widespread improvement in unit morale, and a noticeable decrease in disciplinary infractions. Senior commanders report that it has served as a highly effective tool for helping their Marines to develop mental discipline and focus, and internalizing the warrior mindset that the Corps seeks to cultivate among its members.

Is there any reason why it would not be possible to implement a similar program at RMC ? And would not such a program, with its emphasis on developing practical skills that could save someone’s life in a real-life combat situation, represent a much better use of cadets’ precious time than the current fitness test ?

Recent events would seem to clearly indicate that I am not alone in my misgivings about the usefulness of the PPT test. The report about RMC that was released this past week commented:

“As evidenced by comments from the N/Ocdts, the PPT test is a real source of stress for many. They know it is not a CAF standard and are questioning its validity and purpose. The push up portion of the text was the single most important stressor when discussing the PPT.”

Interesting feedback indeed, and it’s worth noting that this comes directly from the mouths of those who are intended to be the main beneficiaries of the PPT test.

Certainly, no one could reasonably take issue with the premise that a certain level of physical fitness is an essential prerequisite for effective military service. But physical fitness training should not be something that cadets anticipate with dread, or feel that it is being forced down their throats. Fitness is something they should be encouraged to view in a positive light, not only in order to be able to perform their military duties more effectively, but also to take proper care of their own personal physical and emotional wellbeing, and to set an appropriate example for their subordinates that encourages them to do the same.

The bottom line is, the test that we used 40 years ago may have been perfectly appropriate for that era. But today, with all we have learned since that time, there might just be a better way to do it. For many generations of Ex-Cadets, the PPT test was a memorable rite of passage, and an important (if not always enjoyable) part of their military college experience. But as times change, so too do requirements and opportunities. Maybe the time has now finally come to put this particular sacred cow out to pasture, and turn a fresh page regarding how we think about fitness.

Let’s remember as well that there are undoubtedly a million different tests out there that can supposedly be used to assess a person’s relative level of fitness, and the RMC PPT is only one of them. But as far as I am aware, no one has ever yet managed to come up with a standardized test capable of accurately gauging qualities of character such as loyalty, determination, resourcefulness, or fighting spirit. And as I think we have all learned with the passing of the years, in many situations in life, it can be the things that are not so easily measurable that ultimately prove to be the most important.

One hundred years ago this month, Canadians achieved the greatest feat of arms in this country’s history with the triumph at Vimy Ridge. One of the central figures in that action was Arthur Currie, who shortly thereafter was knighted and given command of the entire Canadian Corps. Under his leadership, the Canadians earned a reputation as being the ‘shock troops” of the British Empire, and Currie (who was still in his early 40’s when the war ended) became widely respected as being one of the Allies’ most capable and effective battlefield commanders.

The irony of this story may be that, notwithstanding the phenomenal successes achieved by the troops under his command, Currie himself hardly cut a figure of lean-and-mean fighting fitness. Had “Old Guts and Gaiters” ever been required to undergo the RMC PPT test, it is highly unlikely he would ever have been offered so much as a Second Lieutenant’s commission. Yet notwithstanding his rotund physique, Currie still managed to earn his place in history as arguably the greatest military leader this country has ever produced.

I realize this article may ignite a firestorm of criticism, but maybe that’s not necessarily a bad thing. One thing I’ve learned over the years is, implementing change in any organization is never easy; it’s all the more difficult in situations where making change involves challenging time-honoured traditions, and deeply-held beliefs. And I would encourage readers to remember the famous Zen illustration,

“Do not mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself.”

So too must an institution like RMC constantly challenge itself to continually re-think the things it does, and seek out new ways to ensure that training remains meaningful and relevant to the challenges its graduates will face. It’s the only way that we will be able to maintain the foundation of what makes the College the great institution that it is, and ensure that it will continue to be able to effectively serve Canada and her people for many more years to com.

7 Comments

  • 15566 Helga Grodzinski

    April 3, 2017 at 9:31 am

    Mike, some sensible and thought-provoking words. I agree it is time to take a holistic look at physical fitness within RMC – as part of its remit to the CAF to produce university-educated commissioned officers, as part of how it should be part of an enriched, and dare I say fun part of the cadet experience, and finally as a component of the healthy, well-balanced people RMC wants to sent out into those leadership positions. I expect the End-to-End Review (E2ER) recommended by the SSAV to do exactly that.

  • Sandi MacDonald

    April 3, 2017 at 2:05 pm

    Mike,
    A very courageous article. And all the more powerful coming from an alum. Being fit and active is necessary for over all health. The saying now is “Sitting is this generations smoking”. Inactivity is literally killing us, so no argument that being fit is a bad thing. My son is a second year cadet. I like that each cadet has to be involved in some activity, but the PPT test is very outdated. And to not commission or give RMC status at the end of 4 years if not completed to current standard , is our understanding of current practice….does seem like an unnecessary loss of a valuable resource. We enjoyed the obstacle course. If they can finish that, I would think that would qualify as being fit. From our perspective it looked fun, certainly had teamwork, and cooperation or could not have been completed.
    RMC is looking at changes. As you say, never easy for traditionalists, but good for you starting the conversation around the PPT.

  • Dan Farrell

    April 3, 2017 at 3:48 pm

    Could not agree more. Some otherwise excellent cadets may not have a body type that fits them for pushups (or chinups for that matter)-think Gibbon vs Bonobo. That said, a fitness test with measurable levels would be far superior to a subjective assessment made by a possibly biased P and RT Sergeant as was the case at RRMC when I was there many years ago.

  • 10231 Lorne Facey

    April 3, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    As a High School wrestler, cross-country runner and soccer player I found the CMC fitness tests, 1970-74, very minor obstacles. Throughout my 36yr career I only deployed once with a weapon, to Bosnia in 2004. So, what level of fitness did I require as a CF officer? From a competitive point of view it irked me that there was a two tier gender-based system in fitness. (Maybe today that should be three, or more tiers?) That would not have been tolerated in academic life at the college. The Army’s Fit to Fight/Shoot to Live Programs of the early 1980s were attempts to set fitness/survival standards with no real combat validation. I’m rambling but maybe the CF/CAF conflicts over the past 25yr have provided data(casualties/fatalities) supporting 40yr old tests, at least as an interim measure? But regardless, the fitness level of officer cadets must be seen as relevant to their commissioned service.

  • Doug (Shag) Southen

    April 3, 2017 at 8:13 pm

    Mike, perhaps you viewed my comments here on e-Veritas about the reversion to the old/new 1.5 mile run as a PT test. In my comments I groused that gee whiz, we have a bunch of fat soldiers so we will change the PT specs to make it easier for them to pass…………..

    Or maybe that was a different article, my memory being what it is…..MY POINT, as I had perhaps poorly articulated, was that we need a STANDARD, which people pass or fail. Failure has consequences. If you CANNOT PASS the standard, you have no place in the Canadian Forces. PERIOD. I do not care if you just had a baby, or you had knee surgery, or “you have big bones” ie you are a fat lazy puke, or whatever: after you have completed your medical leave for your justified medical condition, you pass the fitness test, or you go for your release medical. War is not an undertaking for the infirm, and warriors need to be fit. I did not formerly think this was subject to interpretation….

  • C.E.M. (Beth) Webster

    April 4, 2017 at 7:03 pm

    I think martial arts or some sort of hand-to-hand would make more sense.
    It was something I was not taught during the years I was at the colleges.