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U.S. Army
Research Institute of Environmental Medicine

Marine Corps Body Composition Study leads to Modernization of Policies

Dual energy x-ray absorptiometry
The U.S. Marines Corps collaborated with scientists from the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine to conduct a multi-center study assessing the USMC Body Composition and Military Appearance Program. Dual energy x-ray absorptiometry is a gold standard method for body composition studies that assesses the composition of soft tissue, fat and lean, and bone mass using very low dose x-ray equivalent to radiation exposure obtained in an airplane trip across the country. This method was not generally available for research when the Department of Defense established current body fat standards and methods. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Karl Friedl, USARIEM's Senior Scientist)

The military is well known for its physical fitness and body composition standards – standards that were set more than 40 years ago when President Jimmy Carter directed a review of physical fitness for military services. These standards were developed intending to promote the physical readiness of military troops and to prevent obesity.

While the Marine Corps is no stranger to modernizing human performance policies and standards, this is the most comprehensive assessment of body composition methods since President Carter directed the review in 1980. In 2017, the Marines further emphasized performance by incentivizing high fitness test scores with either an increase in total allowable body fat or an exemption from body composition testing for top tier performers.

And now, the Marines collaborated with scientists from the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine to conduct a multi-center study assessing the USMC Body Composition and Military Appearance Program.

The research and analysis provided by USARIEM provided valuable insights to the service and informed the most significant modernization of human performance standards in the service's recent history.

"This comprehensive study obtained data from 2,175 Marines," explains Dr. Adam Potter, research physiologist and mathematical physiologist for USARIEM and lead principal investigator for this project. "Women comprised one third of this total for adequate sampling to evaluate the performance of the current methods and standards for women and men."

Marines volunteering for this study came from four locations: The Basic School, Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia; the National Capital Region in-and-around Quantico, Virginia; Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina; and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. At these locations, volunteers took part in a series of testing, including body dimensions, the "tape test," and research-grade evaluation of body composition using dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry (DXA), bioelectrical impedance analysis (BIA), whole body three-dimensional scans, and strength testing based on jump performance on calibrated force platforms. Researchers collected participants' demographic information, self-reported health and fitness behaviors, and most recent official physical and combat fitness test results.

Body Composition Study team
Key members of the Marine Corps Body Composition Study team review data records during the testing of volunteers in the body composition laboratory at Camp Barrett, Quantico, Virginia. This was the first large study to reexamine Department of Defense body composition standards since they were first established for the services in the 1980s. Left to right, Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Angie Pazmino, Marine Corps Maj. Lara Soto, and Lyndsey Nindl. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Karl Friedl, USARIEM's Senior Scientist)

"The report revealed that Marines are a lean force, with an average percent body fat of 22% for men and 30% for women," said Potter. "This was well below national civilian averages, matched by sex and age and measured by DXA as the gold standard method of body composition determination."

Results highlighted the current interrelationship between weight screening and body fat testing.

Tape-test performance was compared to the DXA gold standard method, revealing the accuracy, overestimation, and underestimation of the tape.

Based on an analysis of the data, a small percentage of mis-categorized men and women would benefit from a body fat assessment by a more sophisticated method, such as DXA. The report also showed that body size, or the body mass index, had poor correlations with physical performance testing.

Body Composition Study team
A volunteer in the Marine Corps body composition study performing a countermovement jump test on a calibrated force platform. This is a laboratory test of explosive power that has been used in many other physical performance studies which can be used for performance comparisons. Explosive power is one important component of the myriad performance capabilities required of Marines, where every Marine is a basic rifleman. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Karl Friedl, USARIEM's Senior Scientist)

The study findings were briefed to Marine Corps leadership and ultimately, to General David Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, leading to the following formalized modifications to Marine Corps policy:

"Any future recommendations to further modify service-level assessment methods would require additional research," said Potter.

Several peer-reviewed scientific articles have already been published, with publication of more analyses planned. The Army and the Navy have recently started their own body composition standards studies to address questions specific to service readiness requirements.

The technical report, "US Marine Corps Body Composition and Military Appearance Program (BCMAP)" Study, released in October, is publicly available here

USARIEM is a subordinate command of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command under the Army Futures Command. USARIEM is internationally recognized as the DOD's premier laboratory for Warfighter health and performance research and focuses on environmental medicine, physiology, physical and cognitive performance, and nutrition research. Located at the Natick Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts, USARIEM's mission is to optimize Warfighter health and performance through medical research.

Last Modified Date: 7/10/2023