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​Electronics, such as tablets, laptops, and smart phones emit artificial light that can deter and disrupt sleep. Optimizing sleep is one of Project HeRO's goals. Air Force illustration by SrA. Destinee Sweeney.

A new Air Force initiative looks to improve squadron health and readiness by targeting negative health behaviors that can lead to potentially avoidable sick days, according to an Office of the Air Force Surgeon General release.

Project HeRO—Health and Readiness Optimization—aligns with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein’s goal of revitalizing squadrons.

“Project HeRO focuses on four areas that impact readiness: improved physical activity, improved sleep optimization, nutritional fitness, and tobacco-free living,” Paul Baldwin, a spokesman with the Air Force Surgeon General’s office, told Air Force Magazine.

An analytics team with Health Promotion, a department of the Air Force Surgeon General’s office, uses annual health survey and fitness data to create “a quarterly report that shows the status for healthy behavior metrics” among airmen in these focus areas, Baldwin said. 

Department coordinators can filter the report “to look at various organization levels,” Baldwin said, starting at the service-wide level and drilling “down to the squadron and unit” levels, and each wing’s health promotion coordinator can view where individual units stand with respect to the project’s focus areas and decide which units need more “engagement with leadership … to improve those behaviors.”

From there, Health Promotion works with the leaders of these squadrons to carry out interventions aimed at halting bad health-related habits, by showing them proposed ways to intervene in these behaviors, along with a rundown “of how changes to modifiable health factors could improve mission readiness,” Baldwin said.

Once commanders give Health Promotion the green light, the department will tailor interventions, which can include anything from “educational campaigns to marketing,” to tackle a squadron’s bad habits heads-on, Baldwin continued.

The release acknowledged that many of HeRO’s health-related messages won’t be new ones, but noted that airmen are more likely to put the preaching into practice if it comes from squadron leaders. Baldwin attributed this to the “unique connection” that’s cultivated when these leaders deploy and fight alongside their airmen “as a single unit.”

Project HeRO was implemented on a trial basis at 10 Air Force installations—nine stateside and one overseas—in 2018. At each base, the project works with the 10 percent of squadrons that exhibit the highest rate of undesirable health behaviors, Baldwin explained. Once their issues are remedied, he continued, the project will aim to work with the remaining squadrons.

The Air Force is still evaluating the success of the 2018 test run, Baldwin said.

Health Promotion is now in the process of gathering quantitative data from squadron interventions. To get a full picture of whether or not Project HeRO is making a real difference, though, Baldwin explained, staff will look at “readiness-related health behaviors” in the “short, intermediate, and long” terms to figure out whether or not the program is effective and sustainable.

The project is posed for service-wide expansion this year.

“As Gen. Goldfein puts it, squadrons are the beating heart of the Air Force,” Baldwin said. “So, our goal is to enable and empower squadron commanders and squadron enlisted leaders to help us carry the health message directly to their airmen. Doing so will go a long way in terms of unit trust, mentorship, and improved readiness.”