Military to Study ‘Hyperfit’ Women
Nearly four years ago, the Pentagon announced that all open combat jobs would be open to women. Since then, the numbers of women applying for and graduating to some of the most intense military positions has slowly risen.
At least 30 women have become Army Rangers, two have graduated from Marine infantry school, and three have passed the initial assessment phases of Green Beret training.
And though this may not seem like a lot, it speaks volumes about the progress that is being made for women in some of the military’s most demanding and grueling courses available to either sex. Furthermore, it begs the question: Who are these ‘hyperfit’ women and what makes them so special?
To answer that question, a voluntary study has just been launched by army medical researchers. The goal is to determine what makes these women tick. To find out what drives them to succeed. Is it their physical fitness, mental capabilities, psychological grit?
Holly McClung, a nutritional physiologist at the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Massachusetts, says, “The real point of the study is to characterize this unique cohort of women that have made it through these traditionally male training.” And she adds, “We’re really interested in those elite women that are the first to make it through physically demanding training.”
The question of adding the ‘fairer’ sex to military combat has been a controversial subject for some time now, with many military leaders being very hesitant to put the lives of women at risk. Furthermore, some questioned the capabilities of women on the front lines, wondering if units would be less effective with women in their ranks.
When the debate began in earnest, individual branches, such as the Marine Corps wanted to give women a chance but also wanted to restrict women to only a few combat positions, keeping others closed to them. However, this decision was overruled by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
And since the seemingly ‘all or nothing’ decision was made, women have themselves to be just as capable as their male counterparts. More and more are making it through special operation and Ranger courses, all of which include several phases of training that can run from nine weeks to nearly two years, depending on the job.
These courses all encompass a large variety of combat water survival, long treks carrying weighty packs, physical fitness tests, day and night land navigation, widespread mental, physiological, and leadership testing, and lengthy patrols through many climates.
The study on women who made it through such tasks hopes to unlock the secrets that allow them to compete and succeed so spectacularly in fields where even some of the fittest and capable men fail. The results of the study will hopefully allow scientists and military specialists to understand the why and how as well as what can be done to help other women strive for similar jobs.
The current plan is to have a few of these hyperfit women volunteer to come to the study’s office in Massachusetts in groups of two or three. Once there, they will be put through a range of tests to determine their physiological and biological traits.
Julie Hughes, a research physiologist involved with the study, says, “This is a unique historical time. There’s this group of women who made it through the training, so we want to get them to at least do these observational investigations to explore what makes them unique.”
One of the main components of the study will include a breathing test, in which the participants will wear a mask and breathing apparatus that is connected to a treadmill and a nearby computer. As they run or perform exercises, the mask will calculate their vo2 max score, which is a crucial fitness indicator. The score is designed to measure how many millimeters of oxygen is used per kilogram of body weight per minute, or how much oxygen each woman uses at her peak exercise rate.
The average sedentary person typically has a score of about 30; However, top athletes have been known to score well into the 80s.
In addition to the breathing test, calcium, blood, and iron levels will also be evaluated, as well as bone density scans. Exercise programs will be used to determine their fitness levels, and written tests and interviews will be used to assess their physiological and mental abilities.