Editor’s note: This article by Thomas Novelly originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.
More than 6,000 Garmin smartwatches will be distributed to Space Force Guardians as the service tests how it can use wearable fitness technology for its new fitness program, according to the company.
In May, the Space Force, which is part of the Department of the Air Force, announced it would conduct a two-year testing period with the Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, to see how wearable fitness trackers might regularly monitor the fitness and wellness of Guardians.
Garmin announced in a press release Monday that its Instinct 2 Solar and Forerunner 55 smartwatch models were chosen for the Space Force's program due to their battery life and the biometric data the devices gather. They were also chosen because they have the ability to disable GPS functionality -- an important feature as the military has raised privacy and security concerns over wearable technology in the past.
"Enrollment has been robust, with over two-thirds of the 8,400-strong Space Force signing up since the program was announced in May," Garmin's press release said. "To date, more than 6,000 Garmin smartwatches have been or will be issued to active military members who have agreed to log workouts and complete monthly surveys provided by AFRL, and a second wave of enrollment is expected to begin in October."
Another incentive for Guardians to sign up is that they will be exempt from the Air Force's physical fitness assessment, which the Space Force has been using while it develops its own program. It consists of pushups, situps and a 1.5-mile run.
In 2022, Space Force leaders promised a revolutionary fitness program called the Holistic Health Approach that would use fitness wearables to help track exercise, diet and sleep instead of conducting a physical test like the other services have embraced for decades.
Details of the program were released by the service this past May. It will be composed of three elements: the voluntary continuous fitness assessment study, which involves wearable fitness technology; performance health optimization, which includes preventive medicine; and education, which is aimed at teaching Guardians good health habits.
"By tracking two basic metrics -- cardiorespiratory fitness and physical activity -- we can quickly verify that a Guardian has met their physical requirements and is ready for duty," Dr. James Christensen, a product line lead with the AFRL's 711th Human Performance Wing, said in the release. "We hope that continuous fitness assessment, implemented via wearable technology, 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."
Military.com reported last year that there were worries among Guardians that the Space Force's data tracking would lead to micromanagement and punishment for not working out enough, despite being pitched as a nonpunitive fitness program.
Guardians also expressed fears that their personal data could be used against them.
Wearables such as smartwatches have raised privacy and security concerns throughout the military. In 2018, a Department of Defense memo asked service members in deployed areas and at high-profile bases not to use their fitness trackers for fear of revealing compromising location data to adversaries.
"The rapidly evolving market of devices, applications and services with geolocation capabilities presents significant risk to DoD personnel both on and off duty, and to our military operations globally," the 2018 memo said.
When unveiling the details of the program in May, the Space Force said that it "addressed data security and privacy concerns regarding the use of wearable devices to monitor fitness by ensuring all metrics collected from Guardians will be only fitness related."
Garmin, in Monday's press release, said its devices are compliant with "federal privacy and cybersecurity standards" when it comes to data encryption.
"We were pleased that the Garmin wearable ecosystem went through a rigorous U.S. Air Force cybersecurity and privacy review," said Scott Burgett, senior director of Garmin Health Engineering. "The U.S. military has high security standards, and our system is designed end-to-end to protect sensitive user data."
Military.com also reported in May that the Pentagon was also looking into expanding the use of wearable fitness trackers to help predict outbreaks of infectious diseases such as COVID-19.
If the Air Force Research Laboratory's study proves successful, it "could be adopted by other branches of the armed services and include broader Department of Defense requirements such as musculoskeletal injury risk," according to Garmin's press release.
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