Alexa Jenny Chandler, Harry P. Cintineo, Bridget A. McFadden, Shawn M. Arent, FACSM. University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC.

Background: College students in Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) programs must meet physical fitness standards in order to commission as a military officer. While physical fitness training is required during the semester, cadets are expected to continue training during the summer break. However, nationwide closures due to COVID-19 during the spring and summer of 2020 may have impeded training abilities and thereby fitness status of incoming cadets in Fall 2020. The purpose of this analysis was to compare fitness levels of Naval ROTC (NROTC) midshipmen upon return to campus in Fall 2020 (FA20) compared to Fall 2021 (FA21). It was hypothesized the battalion would arrive at a higher fitness level in FA21 due to the accessibility of public exercise facilities over the summer months which were largely unavailable during the 2020 summer months. Methods: NROTC midshipmen completed a battery of fitness tests within one month of arrival to campus in FA20 (N=70; Age = 21 ± 2; 89% male) and repeated testing in FA21 (N=85; Age = 20 ± 2; 80% male). Body mass index (BMI; kg/m2) was calculated from height and weight metrics. Performance tests consisted of a countermovement vertical jump (CMJ) and the 20-meter shuttle run test to estimate VO2max. Linear mixed effects models were used to determine overall battalion differences in BMI, CMJ height, and VO2max FA20 compared to FA21 with an alpha level of 0.05 to determine statistical significance. Results: While there were no differences in BMI (P=0.25), 47.2% of midshipmen were classified as ‘overweight’ in FA20 compared to 43.6 % in FA21. CMJ height was significantly higher at FA21 than FA20 (±1.4 cm; P=0.02) but there were no differences in estimated VO2max (FA20 = 48.8 ±5.2 ml/kg/min; FA21 = 49.2 ± 5.4 ml/kg/min; P=0.45). Conclusions: While there were no differences in aerobic fitness, anaerobic fitness appeared to be higher in FA21. While it is not possible to determine the direct impacts of COVID-19 on fitness levels, it is plausible that pandemic-associated closures prevented strength and power training due to lack of fitness facilities and associated equipment, leading to decreased peak power measured as CMJ height. ROTC programs across the country may need to adjust their training programs upon return to in-person activities to ensure all cadets meet the required fitness standards, especially those related to strength and power.

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