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Army crunches gender gap; Fitness: A new three-part Army fitness test holds men and women to similar standards.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT MEADE -- Quietly and without fanfare, men and women in the Army achieved a measure of equality last week on a muddy practice field.

Sgt. Corinne Castanza and Spc. Omari Walker had to complete at least 50 sit-ups to pass the Army's new physical fitness test.

Five years in the making, the new test narrows a gender gap that caused grumbling from male soldiers, who complained that women were getting off easy on the semiannual test that also requires push-ups and and a 2-mile run.

And there's a lot at stake in the three events of the test: The fitness score is among the factors considered for promotions and entry into advanced Army courses.

The new test, which went into effect Feb. 1, requires a faster 2-mile run for most women, although they still don't have to match the time of male soldiers. Nor do they have to complete as many push-ups.

"I think it's pretty equitable as far as sit-ups for men and women," said Castanza, a petite 23-year-old from upstate New York, who has heard male griping about the old test. "Even from my husband. thought the standards were higher for men than women," she said of Cpl. Vincent Castanza, who will take his test soon.

The new test "seems fair," agreed Walker, 22, a long and lean soldier from Kansas City, Mo. "The ab muscles aren't that different between men and women."

In 1992, top Army officers asked for a study to determine whether the fitness test, devised eight years earlier, was equitable for men and women, and among the various age groups. The test gauges overall fitness, rather than the physical qualifications for a particular job, such as paratrooper.

The Army tested 2,588 men and women at a dozen posts around the world and concluded that changes were needed. Many of the minimum requirements were increased to reflect the heightened fitness of the average soldier, while some of the maximums, deemed unattainable, were decreased.

"The majority of people in all age groups have to do more. They have to run faster, do more push-ups and do more sit-ups," said Col. Stephen D. Cellucci, commandant of the Army Physical Fitness School at Fort Benning, Ga.

The old test was flawed, full of guesswork and lacking physiological research on appropriate maximum scores, Cellucci said.

Half of the women were receiving the maximum score in the run. Women in the 27-31 age group had to run two miles in 17 minutes to score the maximum 100 points. Now, they have to complete the run in 15: 48 to get the top score.

The new fitness test better reflects the differences in ability and physiology between men and women, said Cellucci. Since men have greater upper body strength, stronger legs and larger hearts, they are able to complete more push-ups and run faster. But sit-ups are a different matter, the research showed.

"In sit-ups, women can probably do 1 to 2 percent more than men," said Cellucci. "What we decided, since it's so negligible, 'Let's come up with one standard.' "

Overall, the test was designed to offer men and women "the same points for the same effort."

Lt. Gen. William J. Bolt, a senior commander at the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, declared the new standards "tough, challenging, realistic and achievable."

On a dank overcast afternoon last week, Castanza, Walker and 16 other soldiers from Bravo Company of the 741st Battalion, 704th Military Intelligence Brigade assembled at Mullins Field here, dressed in identical pale-gray sweat shirts, for their test.

While a camouflage-clad sergeant squatted with a stop watch, Castanza plopped down on the damp grass and began her two-minutes of sit-ups, her face shading red as she passed the 50 mark.

Since she's in the 22 to 26 age group, Castanza must do five more sit-ups than in the previous test, when 45 would earn the passing grade of 60. As a male, Walker must do three more sit-ups to reach the necessary 50 in the same age group.

By the time the stopwatch hit the two-minute mark, Castanza had surged through the passing grade to complete 68 sit-ups; Walker had made it to 63.

"I have a sit-up bar at home and do them while I watch TV," said Castanza, although: "I lean more toward crunches."

Still, both soldiers completed fewer sit-ups than their last test.

On the other hand, Castanza's extra workouts in preparation for the new test paid off as she shattered the expectations for both men and women in the push-up event.

The sergeant did 45 push-ups, far more than the 17 she needed to pass the test and four more than a man needed to pass. Walker made it to 44.

For Walker and other younger soldiers, the times for the 2-mile run have not changed. But the run has caused heartburn in the over-30 set -- for men and women.

To achieve a passing score in the run, women ages 32 to 41 must run nearly a minute faster than in the previous test. And the men have seen their time cut.

On his sweat shirt, Sgt. 1st Class Randy Rijken wears a badge that designates his perfect 300 score in the old test. It pictures a gold figure with arms outstretched on a Stars and Stripes background. Around the border are the words: "Physical Fitness Excellence."

"I have to run 40 seconds faster to achieve what I did the last time," said Rijken, 35, who plans on running sprints to prepare. "Some complain that it's a little harder."

Cellucci said he reminds grumpy soldiers that the test is based on performance levels in their own age group. "What I tell them is, 'Look in the mirror,' " he says, speaking in the rapid-fire manner of a coach. The colonel runs the two miles in 12: 06, which for his 46-year-old age group is two minutes faster than the perfect score time.

As the soldiers gathered on the track for the run, Sgt. Sean O'Connor, Bravo Company's trainer, announced the ground rules.

"Though walking is authorized, it is strongly discouraged," he boomed. "Cheering or calling out the time is permitted."

The soldiers, from pudgy privates to brawny sergeants, began to loop around the track. Some quickly surged ahead while others fell back, with labored breathing and struggling gaits.

"A couple of them are in low gear," mumbled one sergeant, eyeing his stopwatch, as they went by.

Other trainers shouted encouragement. "Good job Castanza!" "Come on Monroe!"

Walker crossed the finish line with a time of 16: 07, beating his previous time by nearly a minute. "I'm planning on bringing it down even more," he said with a smile.

A red and sweaty Castanza crossed the line at 17: 31, beating her previous time of 18: 25.

Overall, Castanza scored a 263, an increase from the 230 she received on her previous test. Walker earned a 236 score, up from 220 last time.

Unlike those two soldiers, this is a practice test for most in Bravo Company. Overall, the soldiers' scores were about the same as with the old test, with the younger soldiers scoring a bit higher, said O'Connor, the company's trainer.

But Cellucci, the Army's fitness chief, said such performances are not consistent with Army-wide practice tests during the past year. Although he said the current Army is the most physically fit ever, test scores on average are down about 6 points.

"They're not doing as well because it's tougher," said Cellucci, who expects that scores will come up through additional training and leadership. When Cellucci was a battalion officer in Germany during the early 1990s, his soldiers raised their scores on the fitness test from an average of 212 to 265 over two years.

Those who fail to achieve at least 60 points in each event must retake the test within 90 days. A second failure means a soldier is out of the Army, though Cellucci said that happens in less than 1 percent of cases.

O'Connor said he is working his soldiers "a little bit harder" to meet the new requirements.

This extra training will help boost scores -- as will the right attitude, said Capt. Deborah Gauss, Bravo Company's commander. "The soldiers who are motivated are going to see it as a challenge, and strive to do better."

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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