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How the Air Force Solved Their Fitness Problem: And How you Can Apply it to Your Workouts

A few decades ago, the United States Air Force had a problem.  After passing initial fitness testing, Airforce personnel struggled to pass a very basic, mandatory, on-going fitness assessment.  Failure to pass the test lead to decommission; a situation everyone wanted to avoid. 
The “fitness” assessment involved two components: (1) Waist measurement and (2) a 1.5 mile timed run (a pedestrian time goal).  Air Force leadership grew increasingly frustrated with failure rates on the fitness test. They decided to issue heart rate monitors to all personnel who failed the test. It was mandated that they perform one hour of running or cardio, four to five days per week.   Of course, this failed.  It doesn’t take an exercise scientist to surmise that if you can’t run 1.5 miles , you definitely can’t run for an hour.  Injuries and waistlines continued to increase.   
Aerobic luminary Ken Cooper MD (a former Air Force cardiologist himself) approached fitness researcher Wayne Westcott Ph.D and asked him to design a solution. (You may recall Wayne’s name as he was a co-author of a study we conducted and published a few years ago and is the foremost thought leader on strength training and fat loss in the United States).

The Solution:

Dr. Westcott said, “We need to have them strength train.”  Air Force subjects performed ten strength training exercises; one set to the point of muscle failure (they aimed to reach failure by one minute).  Then they got on a stationary bike and pedaled for one minute.  They repeated this for 10 exercises and 10 minutes of cardio; the total workout time was 20 minutes.  After 12 weeks, they made significant improvements in every measurement.  They aced the running test despite the fact that they didn’t run at all during the 12 week study.  A control group performed 60 minutes of running or continuous aerobic exercise  four to five days per week and as predicted, failed to show any improvement.  This monumental study forever changed how the Air Force looked at exercise.   

If you want to lose weight and improve aerobic performance (and you aren’t a born runner), follow the lead of the Air Force and utilize a combination of strength training and interval training.  


A fascinating note:  Dr. Westcott later concluded that the same results were achieved if the participants only performed the strength training and skipped the cardio completely.  His most popular study design for fat loss currently involves 10-12 strength exercises and seven minutes of cardio.  


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