"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Air Force PFT Age Penalty

I'm done digging into the Air Force Physical Fitness Test (PFT) scoring charts.  While people have a great many opinions on the test and how to make it better, here is my one recommendation.  Get rid of the aging penalty on those approaching retirement eligibility!

The PFT singles out this group of individuals (30-39 years of age), and while it giveth a sliver of aging benefit with the left hand, it taketh it away with the right hand.  As the charts make perfectly clear, a 39 year old in this group is expected to run the same as an 18 year old.  Some will note that the 39 year old has an extra 24 seconds to keep from failing the running component of the test (giving with the left hand).  That is true, but what should also be noted, is that if a 39 year old uses that extra 24 seconds to pass the running component, they are penalized point wise.  All other age brackets are not penalized for passing the running component in the slowest allowable run time.  The 39 year old, however, will pass the running component, but then they must make up an entire three points on other areas of the test.  For example, by adding 23 additional push-ups, to crawl back to the same point level as individuals from all other age groups that also run in the slowest allowable time.  So while it looks at first glance like the 39 year old gets an aging benefit for run time, the right hand quickly takes it away.

I am operating under the assumption, of course, that aging is somewhat constant.  If there is evidence that a 39 year old's ability to run isn't greatly affected after 21 years of aging, or that the amount it is affected isn't as much as the person who ages from 39 to 40 years of age, then I'll retract my recommendation.  But I don't think that is the case, and I think aging can be factored much better into the test.  Beyond what my body tells me through aging aches and pains, a quick non-academic Google search finds several sources that indicate that our lungs start aging at 20 years of age, with a corresponding decrease in the ability of the lungs to place oxygen into the blood stream.  Bones start to age at 30-35 and joint issues begin to be experienced.  Muscles start to age at 30 years of age, and while the muscle fitness component of the PFT takes this into account, it does not take this into account for the running component that comprises 60% of an individual's score.

For those who might be tempted to think this test discriminates against a certain age group, it does rightly or wrongly.  Whatever your view on the morality, such singling out is perfectly legal to do in the United States, as long as those singled out are not yet forty years old.  Congress' law, designed to prevent companies from kicking out employees just prior to earning a pension, does not apply to the crusty 39 year old.

This hasn't stopped at least one officer, Lt Col Chris Cote, from filing a complaint about the walk test portion of the PFT being discriminatory against older individuals.  Says Lt Col Cote,  “And it’s not just me, the 56-year-old... If you’re 30, the 20-year-old’s got a better deal than you.”  While I've never done the walk test, the math clearly shows he is absolutely correct that age is directly penalized in the walk test.  The formula is calculated (with a higher number equating to more points) as: 132.853 – 0.0769(Weight) – 0.3877(Age) + 6.315(Gender) – 3.2649(Time) – 0.1565(HR).  If a person's weight, walk time, and heart rate stay the same, then they get penalized each year they age.  That being said, apparently heart rate is supposed to decrease as a person ages (I've heard one heart beat per minute per year, and I've read 5-7 beats per minute per decade).  From the article above, the Lt Col recognizes this but says the formula doesn't account for this appropriately.

An individual at age 38 that walks the test in X minutes, and has a heart rate of Y will get a VO2 score.  That VO2 score will then equate to a running component score to be factored into their final PFT score.  If a year later they walk the test in the same time, and have the same heart rate, they will get a lower VO2 score simply for aging one year, and it will translate to a lower component score and a lower score on the PFT.  The walk test would appear then to uniformly penalize aging.  In actuality, however, it penalizes those under forty years of age more because the VO2 scores of those forty years and older is converted into a higher score on a different chart.  The bias against those under 40 years of age is crystal clear in the walk test portion of the test, as well.

Whether one thinks the test is easy, or difficult, scores excellent or fails, the fact of the matter is this test has a strong bias against those in the 30-39 age bracket.

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