NAPLES, Italy -- Petty Officer 1st Class Love Harris arrived in Naples three years ago and promptly failed his first fitness assessment, the result of a busy tour at sea and bad eating habits, he said.
Automatically enrolled in his command's fitness program, Harris hit the gym, changed his diet and passed the next assessment. He still attends program workouts and is now training to become a fitness leader within his command.
"My realization is (fitness) is a way of life instead of just, 'Hey, yeah, we got to get ready for this (test) every six months,'" he said.
That's the idea behind new Navy fitness regulations announced last week, which will loosen the body fat limits that snagged Harris while encouraging sailors to participate in command fitness programs like the one he embraced. Yet a challenge will be convincing other sailors to commit to those programs, which are commonly seen as repositories for those who fail the test.
"I think the (fitness program) population is going to grow, which is not necessarily a bad thing," said Chief Petty Officer Carter Hollingsworth, a command fitness leader for the roughly 300 sailors of the Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station in Naples. "Obviously there's a negative connotation, where everyone thinks you're there because you failed, whereas now that mentality is going to shift a little bit."
For years the Navy has required each of its commands to organize a fitness-enhancement program, or FEP, in which participants follow individualized workout and nutrition plans. The goal is to bring them back within standards for the twice-annual physical fitness assessment, or PFA. The classes meet three to five times a week and are run by command fitness leaders or their assistants, who monitor participant progress.
The programs are technially open to anyone, but they are mandatory for those who fail the PFA, until they can pass the next one. Unlike failing a fitness assessment, which can have consequences for a career, participating in the fitness program has no bearing on sailor evaluations.
Yet many sailors see the class as useful only for those who fail the test, to the consternation of leaders who advocate the program's broader benefits. As Navy leaders vow to move the fitness assessment away from an emphasis on minimum standards, the ability to monitor one's health and receive help from experts will be important, they say.
"Our leadership has the responsibility to help them identify those deficiencies and at the same time provide them the resources to help them be successful in overcoming those deficiencies," said U.S. 6th Fleet Master Chief Steve Giordano. "And I think that's what the program does."
More sailors may be forced into the program under the new rules, set to take effect in January. Commander-driven fitness "spot checks," conducted throughout the year could see more sailors placed into fitness programs.
While the service is making it easier for sailors to pass the body fat portion of the test by loosening limits -- to 26 percent body fat for men and 35 percent for women -- the change could actually usher more sailors into fitness programs. Under the new rules, those who meet that overall standard but fail their age-based maximum body fat rate are required to enter their command's program.
Hollingsworth, in Naples, said he believes younger sailors are likely to ease up on efforts to maintain body fat and fall into that gap first, followed by older sailors who have kept tighter standards but suddenly see more wiggle room to pass the overall assessment.
"I've already heard it on the deckplate level," he said, "'Phew, I can relax now. I was forced into 22 (percent body fat) all the way up to 40 years old.'"
Yet sailors can also leave the fitness program faster under new rules. Under current requirements, sailors must stay in their program until passing a full fitness assessment -- offered only twice a year. Now, sailors will be able to leave after passing one of the "mock" fitness assessments offered every 30 days.
That's a concern for Hollingsworth, who said that even now some sailors who leave the fitness program after one cycle return soon with another failure. Several failures carry a price -- current rules allow only three failures in four years before the Navy boots a sailor from the service, and the rules beginning next year will cut that to two in three.
"From a program perspective I would like to be able to hold on to them longer and get them more involved," he said. "Maybe give them some more time to really get that nutrition piece down."
Instead, Hollingsworth and others hope sailors will see the benefit of voluntary, long-term participation in their command's fitness program, versus cycling in and out.
Some who have already participated in the programs see a similar emphasis in the Navy's new rules -- long-term fitness over the short-term goal of meeting standards.
"The opinion is that standards loosened, which I don't think is true at all," said Petty Officer 1st Class Rachael Thao, a hull maintenance technician in Yokosuka who credits a command-run nutrition course for helping her lose post-pregnancy weight. "In the 10 weeks before the PRT there is this huge push to get back into shape and when the PRT is over they kick back and relax for six months."
Stars and Stripes reporter Tyler Hlavac contributed to this report.