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Bragg bods: Why the Army is researching body compositions of Fort Bragg soldiers

A sign at one of the entrances to Fort Bragg. (Fish Cop./WikiCommons)

The bodies of Fort Bragg soldiers are being studied through next week.

Researchers with the U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training and the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine are conducting the comprehensive body composition study at Fort Bragg.

For about three decades, the Army has used what’s known as the tape test, measuring the neck and abdomen in males and neck, waist and hips in females to calculate the body-fat percentage.

Sgt. Maj. of the Army Michael Grinston, who checked out the study Tuesday, said the method has “stood the test of time,” but can have a low human-error rate.

Grinston said the rationale for collecting the data came from soldiers asking leaders to look at height and weight standards in the Army.

He said he initially misunderstood the soldier’s request of wanting to “train highly disciplined, physically fit soldiers.”

“What soldiers really asked me for is, ‘Do we have the height and weight tables right?'” Grinston said.

Researchers are taking into consideration that technologies the Army has at its disposal “today didn’t exist 30 years ago,” he said.

The tape method is being used as part of the study, but researchers are looking at three other ways to measure body-fat percentage.

At the dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry machine Tuesday, soldiers laid down for about seven minutes as the machine digitally scanned their bodies.

The machine measures muscle mass, bone density and fat mass, said Matt Bartlett, project manager for the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine,

He described the machine as being a gold standard in the fitness industry for determining body composition.

“It’s precise on many different levels, and it has very minimal human error, Bartlett said.

The machine can provide data on how much each body part, like a leg or arm, weighs.

Bartlett said the machine provides instant readings of an individual’s body composition, which the soldier is able to then take to a wellness center on post to further understand if the reading indicates there are any areas of health the soldier should focus on.

At a bioelectrical impedance analysis machine, soldiers stood on it as they held two handles, which Bartlett said sends low voltage, nonharmful electrical signals through the body to measure muscle mass, fat mass, and bone and water weight.

The final machine is a mobile 3D scanner, which Bartlett said is used by apparel and sports companies.

It uses infrared lasers and within 13 seconds it groups about 2 million individual data points into about 100 categories that include the individual’s neck circumference and waist circumference.

Bartlett said each method of testing body fat informs the soldier about his or her body fat percentage and lean mass.

“You can jump on the scale and get a weight and height, but this really breaks it down very, very precisely,” he said.

Among the soldiers volunteering to participate in the study Tuesday was 2nd Lt. Kayla Maupin, with the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division.

“Personally for me, I really like that the study is evaluating how are they determining if height, weight and body fat is accurate and maybe reevaluating what that means for the Army,” Maupin said. “I think that’s great, too, because I’ve really struggled with it over the years — having good muscle mass.”

Maupin, 24, said she noticed a difference in the readings from the machines that measured her muscle mass compared to the tape method.

Spc. Jonathan Farias, also with the 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, said he volunteered for the study because he’s never had a body composition test before.

“Some of my buddies that I’m in the brigade with said, they got super high-tech machines that will get you good results,” Farias said. “So, I mean, this is definitely a good place to kind of see where I’m at in the physical fitness aspect of my life.”

Joining the Fort Bragg soldiers in the study Tuesday was the Army’s top enlisted soldier.

Grinston said that the biggest surprise in his own results was that the tape test indicated he had 11% body fat, whereas the dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry machine showed him at 14.9% and another machine measured him at 17%.

“The whole point is to say, here’s what we’ve done in the past and here’s this other technology we have to see and how do we compare them, and that’s probably something we haven’t done in 30 years,” Grinston said.

Bartlett said the data, which is being collected objectively, will be provided to Army leaders.

“It’s not about which method is better,” Bartlett said. “We’re just using a variety of methods to get the best results that we can get.”

Grinston said it’s too early to determine how and whether the results of the study will result in change in the Army.

The focus right now is to gather data for the next couple of weeks from Fort Bragg soldiers under the 18th Airborne Corps and local National Guard and Reserve soldiers in order to collect data from a wide demographic, Grinston and researchers said.

The goal is to have diverse volunteer participants, said Holly McClung, a nutritional physiologist with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.

Researchers are seeking 2,000 regular Army soldiers, 500 Reserve soldiers and 500 National Guard participants.

If there is not enough volunteer participation from a certain demographic such as 50-year-old female soldiers, researchers plan to go to another Army installation to collect more data, McClung said.

McClung said researchers want to also ensure data is collected from postpartum females.

Fort Bragg was selected as the initial study site because it is the most-populated Army installation in the U.S., she said.

McClung said researchers don’t want to provide results until they’re sure the results aren’t skewed and that they show the “whole picture.”

It could take between six to nine months before a recommendation is made based on the data, said Michael McGurk, director of research and analysis at U.S. Army Center for Initial Military Training.

Department of Defense policy requires body composition programs and fitness tests, McGurk said

From a soldier perspective, Grinston said, it is important to be fit for missions.

“Fundamentally, if I’m a certain weight. can it be harmful either to (me) in combat or harmful to (me) as an individual and your health,” he said. “That’s a question we had when talking to scientists.”

McClung said an initial body assessment looks at if an individual can do the job, but then looks further to determine if his or her performance can be improved.

It’s a process she said is used by athletes and in clinical settings.

Looking at research indicates if those assessments are valid or need to be tweaked, she said.

“The American population has changed over the last 10 years, so has the warfighter,” McClung said.

McGurk said scientists know there’s a relationship between a healthy body and how it performs and moves.

“The Army doesn’t separate people for what they weigh,” he said.

What is assessed is whether someone has a high body fat percentage compared to muscle, McGurk said.

Army holistic health and fitness programs help soldiers covert excess fat into muscle, while also teaching nutrition or healthy sleeping habits to improve “the whole soldier,” he said.

Grinston said soldiers participating in the study are also providing Army combat fitness or Army physical fitness test scores and noting any injuries they’ve had.

He said the comprehensive study is determining if fitness scores correlate with height and weight.

That is why, he said, researchers need “all types, shapes and sizes” and ages to participate instead of just “young, fit soldiers who’ve aced the fitness tests.”

“The ultimate goal is to make us more fit, more healthy individuals as a part of healthy holistic fitness,” Grinston said. “Let the science do the talking.”


(c) 2021 The Fayetteville Observer

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