AFRL leads USSF Continuous Fitness Assessment study
WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFRL) — The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, is conducting a two-year voluntary study with Guardians to assess the use of wearable fitness devices that measure physical activity. The study, which began enrollment in May 2023, is part of the U.S. Space Force’s Continuous Fitness Assessment, or CFA, line of effort.
“This study will explore the usability, reliability and effectiveness of these devices while incorporating feedback from Guardians,” said Dr. James Christensen, a product line lead with AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing. “The results will inform leaders about the role of wearable devices in proposed fitness strategies that may replace annual tests. All uniformed Guardians are eligible for the study and participation is optional.”
In May 2023, Guardians received an email invitation to join the study. Those who enroll and remain active in the study will be exempt from U.S. Air Force physical fitness assessments.
Following the initial announcement, the AFRL study team hosted information sessions at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio for Guardians who pre-enrolled in the study. Study team members briefed Guardians on participation guidelines, answered questions and issued Garmin watches, the approved study device.
Virtual info sessions will be hosted in the coming weeks along with three in-person sessions near Peterson and Schriever Space Force bases in Colorado, July 18-21, 2023. The team will also host sessions near Buckley Space Force Base, Colorado, July 24-27, 2023.
Thanks to a physical fitness test, or PT, waiver, Guardians who fully participate in the study meet their fitness requirements, Christensen said. During the study phase, participants will wear the devices, log workouts and complete monthly surveys as the AFRL team monitors select data to assess the capability.
“There’s actually very little data from the wearable that gets pulled into a customized, secure system and tracked,” Christensen said. “It’s just one metric that gets to the overall level of cardiorespiratory fitness and one metric that identifies the quantity and intensity of the physical activity.”
Christensen said the study is the culmination of years of work across AFRL dedicated to developing and testing devices, validating metrics and identifying security measures along with developing databases and algorithms. Professionals from across the lab are supporting the effort, including psychologists, exercise physiologists, computer scientists, engineers, athletic trainers and program managers.
“The primary purpose of the study is to examine the long-term effects that continuous physical fitness assessment implemented via wearables has on the physical activity behaviors and performance of Guardians,” said Dr. Adam Strang, a principal investigator and certified athletic trainer with AFRL’s 711th Human Performance Wing. “This study will first explore how CFA impacts the Guardians. But then, because we are implementing a comparison group, we’ll be able to tell if CFA is an equivalent or potentially better solution for maintaining physical readiness compared to current Air Force fitness standards.”
Guardian data will be tracked on the Airman Data and Performance Tracking System, or ADAPTS, a secure platform originally developed for the special operations community that aggregates data from commercial wearable fitness trackers with customizable dashboards.
“We were very deliberate in building on all the knowledge and the expertise that AFRL has to select the right devices, the right metrics and then build it into a secure system that protects the members’ privacy,” Christensen said.
Participants are only required to wear these devices during physical activity and will receive instructions for disabling the device’s GPS. To sync and track data, study participants will use the Smartabase application via a phone or tablet.
Smartabase is popular with professional sports teams and DOD organizations including U.S. Special Operations Command for managing human performance data, Strang said.
After the study, the AFRL team will analyze the results to determine the effectiveness of wearables relative to the current physical fitness tests and advise on future efforts to make wearables a permanent option.
“The goal here is to deliver Space Force the knowledge to write the requirements and have the policy associated with it to make this a successful program. AFRL is proud to work with the U.S. Space Force to ensure that Guardians receive a highly effective, safe and secure fitness assessment capability.”
~Dr. James Christensen
Strang said study results will help officials validate future fitness requirements.
“We’re giving scientific evidence so that policy gets better,” he said.
Security and privacy
A cybersecurity team from AFRL’s Digital Capabilities Directorate evaluated the system and secured the initial authority to operate in the study phase. This authorization certifies a system is sufficiently compliant with federal cybersecurity policies and regulations to mature the capability.
Michael Hanke, the cybersecurity authorizing official for Air Force science and technology activities, said the team evaluated the security measures associated with the watch and the systems that collect the data, which are “stitched together as a unified capability to enable the study.”
The study team took several steps to protect participants’ privacy, Hanke said, including measures to balance security with flexibility, adjust capabilities as the study progresses and posture for a successful transition to operational use. The goal is to enable technology maturation by strictly controlling data access during the study. For example, the team leveraged Cloud One, a Department of the Air Force enterprise information technology capability that provides cloud services via common secure computing environments.
One of the strongest privacy protections, Hanke said, involves the deidentification or anonymity of the data collected.
“There’s no way to attach anybody’s personal information to the data flowing from the watch,” Hanke said. “That information is protected and behind firewalls. Very few people will have access to it and [the personal info] is not intended for any other purposes than study management to ensure participation.”
AFRL cybersecurity experts said precautions, including deidentified data and firewalls, are in place to minimize risks and protect Guardians who participate in the study.
“Anything that we’re gathering [for the study] would not be identifiable and made available to leadership.”
~Dr. Adam Strang
Scientists and engineers from AFRL’s Information Directorate assessed vulnerabilities using a Cyber Blue Book process. In April 2023, AFRL released the initial Cyber Blue Book, a report that assesses the cyber vulnerability of an information system.
“We look at the potential vulnerabilities with architecture, specification and implementation and then we identify what we can do to mitigate those vulnerabilities,” said Peter Mozloom, the AFRL cyber superiority mission area lead.
AFRL secured a cooperative research and development agreement, or CRADA, with Garmin in March 2023 to investigate all areas, including the specifications, software, sensors and data encryption.
“If we identify vulnerabilities, we will work with Garmin to identify possible tactics, techniques and procedures or technological ways to fix [them],” Mozloom said. “That’s the cooperative piece.”
Mozloom, the lead author for the Cyber Blue Book, said confidentiality, integrity and availability are key areas investigated by his team via the CRADA. In addition to data security, the AFRL team also looks at how the system could be exploited.
“We’re addressing security from an attacker’s perspective,” said Wladimir “Walt” Tirenin, an AFRL computer engineer. “You can’t fully comprehend the security of something without understanding it from an attacker’s perspective.”
While the Cyber Blue Book addresses cyber vulnerability, AFRL experts said mission assurance is also a priority.
“Our team is proud to support a program that has a real-world impact on Guardians,” said John Monigan, AFRL division chief of cybersecurity management. “We’re also proud to support the ’One Lab, Two Services’ priority.’”
The CFA is part of the U.S. Space Force’s Holistic Health Approach, or HHA, an initiative that promotes wellness through positive behaviors, education and training and performance health optimization. The fitness portion of the HHA ultimately seeks to replace traditional military fitness tests with data from continuous monitoring technology.
The U.S. Space Force began implementing the HHA in May 2023, and AFRL plans to launch the CFA study with 6,000 participants or three-fourths of all Guardians.
“All three components of the Holistic Health Approach are critical to promoting Guardian health,” said Katharine Kelley, the deputy chief of Space Operations for Human Capital. “This is intended to motivate service members to participate in year-round physical fitness to promote positive short- and long-term health outcomes, consistent optimal levels of physical fitness, and encourage an enduring high-quality of life.”
To learn more about the Holistic Health Approach, listen to a Perigee podcast conversation between Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David “DT” Thompson, Chief Master Sergeant of the Space Force Roger A. Towberman, Katherine Kelley, the deputy chief of Space Operations for Human Capital and Dr. James Christensen, AFRL 711th Human Performance Wing product line lead, here.
While the study focuses on physical fitness and wellness indicators, the data will also help assess other Department of Defense requirements, including musculoskeletal injury risk.
“We hope that the use of the wearable devices will promote a higher, more consistent level of fitness across the force with expected outcomes like reduced injury and stress, improved resilience and higher overall operational performance.”
~Dr. James Christensen
The Air Force Research Laboratory is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,500 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit www.afresearchlab.com.