What is the Military Tape Test?

There are Consequences for Exceeding Body Fat Standards

Three young men in basic training
Sam Edwards/Caiaimage/Getty Images

According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than one third of all adults in the United States suffer from obesity. If the military didn’t take offensive measures, it would only be a matter of time before the military shares the effects of obesity and associated illnesses, such as diabetes, heart disease, and some forms of cancer that the civilian society is now plagued with.

In 2002, the Defense Department laid down the law concerning body fat.

“All the DoD Components shall measure body fat using only the circumference-based method,” read the regs. “This method has been carefully evaluated for applicability to Service members and represents the best approach, which can be applied by Service members with minimal error (plus or minus 1 percent). This method is valid because of the emphasis on abdominal circumference, the site of human body fat deposition that is most strongly associated with health risks, and which corresponds to other military goals including appropriate appearance and healthy exercise habits.”

Consequences of Exceeding Body Fat Standards

The consequences of exceeding body fat standards within the services are severe. In the Army, soldiers listed as overweight may not:

  • Re-enlist
  • Are not eligible for promotion.
  • Aren’t allowed to attend professional military schools.
  • Are often are barred from leadership positions.

Understanding The Tape Test

All of the services use a simple tape test to make the call on who’s too fat.

The Army, Navy and Marine Corps use a basic height-weight body mass index tool as an initial assessment and then those who exceed weight limits get taped. Men are measured at the neck and waist; women: neck, waist and hips. For both, the neck measurement is subtracted from the other measurements in an equation designed to determine their “circumference value.” Those results are then compared against height measurements using Pentagon-generated charts to determine the body fat percentage.

Is the Tape Test Accurate?

While the tape test is cheap and easy to administer, many complain that it’s not accurate. The tape test accounts for the size of an individual but does not take into consideration muscle. There have been occurrences recorded of a soldier having maxed out the PT test and failed the tape test.

When they questioned the results and after had Hydrostatic testing, it was determined that their body fat was well within acceptable limits. (Hydrostatic Testing Underwater weighing is the most cumbersome method of body fat testing, but it's also the most accurate. You sit on a scale in a tank of warm water, and then you blow all the air out of your lungs and bend forward until you're completely submerged. You stay submerged for a few seconds while your underwater weight registers on a high precision scale. The result is then plugged into a mathematical equation. This test is repeated and the best results are averaged to get a very accurate reading of the amount of fat in your body.)

Is the Tape Test Fair?

Troops have complained the tape test is unfair, saying it is an inaccurate gauge of fitness with too large an impact on their careers. They feel that the tape test is only administered to insure that individuals have a proper military appearance (look good in uniform) or is being given as a punitive measure.

The statement by the DoD, “which corresponds to other military goals including appropriate appearance and healthy exercise habits” certainly gives credence to this belief.

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