By Katie Drummond
A Navy admiral suggests exercise-oriented video games as another way to rethink methods of getting recruits fit, capitalizing on skills that modern youths, for better or worse, already have.
The idea would combine two recent trends in military training: a boom in video games to prep troops in skills such as flying a helicopter and interacting with foreign cultures, and a surge in recruits deemed unfit to serve for health reasons.
"There are lots of programs now that people can [use to] become very physically active while they're using interactive computer games," Navy Surgeon General Vice Adm. Adam Robinson told the Navy Times.
The programs, like Dance Dance Revolution or Wii Fit, have been touted for their ability to improve aspects of cardiovascular fitness, agility and strength.
But they're a far cry from the training regimens of former recruits: at least two months of grueling physical exercise, including running, sit ups, push ups, weapons training and marching drills.
And debate persists over whether the games, especially the ultra-popular Wii Fit series, can do as much as they claim when it comes to physical fitness. Wii Fit, for example, includes tame virtual activities such as ski jumping, head-butting a soccer ball and hula-hooping.
At best, the Wii programs provide "a very, very mild workout," according to a study from the American Council on Exercise.
Fortunately, Robinson's plan doesn't call for the Navy to phase out real-world physical fitness training. Instead, he wants to use some variation of the video games to cajole recruits, largely unaccustomed to intense activity, into more strenuous endeavors.
"I have no doubt that today's youth and the people that we're talking about are capable of becoming physically fit," he said. "But I think that there has been a definite difference in the amount of time that people have devoted to physical activity."
The use of virtual reality would also help prevent injuries, which are plaguing an unprecedented number of recruits, because training regimens have them doing too much, too soon.
Earlier this year, the Army announced drastic changes to its physical fitness program, to compensate for flabbier troops and a war zone that's often experienced from behind a computer screen or inside a vehicle.
As part of the new regimen, no strengthening move can be repeated more than 10 times a session, and troops can't run longer than 30 minutes a day.
"Most of these soldiers have never been in a fistfight or any kind of a physical confrontation. They are stunned when they get smacked in the face," Capt. Scott Sewell, who oversees Army trainees, told The Associated Press.
And then there's the problem that plagues military games, described as "militainment" by many analysts, including the Brookings Institution's Peter Singer. The games offer a realistic portrayal of the war zone, but they can't quite emulate the real thing.
"The term was first coined to describe any public entertainment that celebrated the military, but today it could be redefined to mean the fascinating, but also worrisome, blurring of the line between entertainment and war," Singer writes. He later adds that "it's getting harder to figure out where the games end and the war begins."
Despite the downsides, the Pentagon seems determined to turn every aspect of military life, from recruitment to training to combat, into virtual reality. Singer estimates that the military is spending $6 billion a year on new militainment efforts.