By Doug Nadvornick

New mothers who serve as active duty military members share many of the same issues as new mothers in civilian life. But there is one difference: within a certain time period after giving birth – usually six months — military mothers are required to take fitness tests. Those who don’t pass the tests face negative consequences, such as unsatisfactory job evaluations or even discharge from the service.

The burden of having to take a fitness test causes plenty of stress for some new moms, says Nicole Armitage, a PhD student in the WSU College of Nursing. Armitage recently received a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense’s TriService Nursing Research Program to study why some new mothers in the Air Force struggle to regain the fitness levels needed to stay in the military.

“There’s been very little research done in this area,” Armitage said. “I wonder how integrating preparation for the fitness test into the postpartum experience affects health.”

Armitage is a lieutenant colonel and women’s health nurse practitioner in the Air Force. She’s finishing her doctorate and assigned to the Air Force ROTC detachment at WSU Pullman.

As part of her preliminary study, she interviewed three active duty Airmen who gave birth within the past year. Overall, she expects to interview between 10 and 15 women based at Fairchild and Travis Air Force Base in California. Some are training for their first fitness tests since giving birth.

“I want to know how they’re dealing with their situations,” Armitage said. “The goal is to develop ways that we as nurses can help these women handle all of the stresses that they face as they work to get back into shape.”

Military fitness standards have changed

The Air Force fitness test is required periodically of all Airmen. It has four parts: a timed mile-and-a-half run, timed sit-up and push-up tests and an abdomen circumference measurement. The pass/fail threshold varies according to age and gender. The better the performance, the more points are awarded.

Armitage says it used to be that participants could pass their fitness test even if they failed one of the segments as long as they racked up enough points in the other categories. That’s no longer true. She says Airmen must now reach a certain threshold in every event.

For women recovering from cesarean sections, the sit-up requirement can be very difficult to meet, says WSU nursing assistant professor Denise Smart. Smart is Armitage’s advisor and a maternal-child health researcher who recently retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Air National Guard.

Smart believes the Air Force fitness requirements are not always an indication of fitness or health. She says some argue the fitness tests should be job or task specific.

“They need to look at the whole package of fitness versus just a standard physical test that measures how many push-ups and sit-ups a woman can do,” Smart said.

Nicole Armitage will spend the rest of the summer recruiting more servicewomen for her study and then record interviews in the fall. Then she and a team of College of Nursing researchers, including Smart, will analyze the data.

Armitage hopes to publish findings from her research next year. She’s due to finish her PhD in May and then become a health care researcher in the Air Force.

Contact:

Lt. Col. Nicole Armitage, WSU College of Nursing PhD student, 509-979-8787, Nicole.armitage@email.wsu.edu

Media contact: Doug Nadvornick, WSU Health Sciences, 509-358-7540, doug.nadvornick@wsu.edu