The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are gung-ho about new fitness, athletic and recreation initiatives that strive to improve the quality of life for the nation's military personnel.

When it comes to maintaining a high level of fitness and overall health, members of the armed services might be a bit more motivated than the general population. After all, the men and women of the United States Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Navy are required to attain (and maintain) high levels of fitness and wellness.

Yet despite the rigorous regimens, living a physically fit lifestyle remains a challenge for some. "It's no more of a problem in the Navy than it is in society," says Kelly Powell, head of Navy fitness. "But it needs to be less of a problem for us than for society."

That's why all four branches of the military are taking giant strides toward better meeting the fitness, athletic and recreation needs of personnel (active and retired), their families and civilian employees. Planned initiatives range from a late-night summer basketball league for teenage children of Air Force employees to major fitness-equipment upgrades on Navy ships. Funding for these efforts comes from both the U.S. government and local bases or installations. Many of these new programs will be introduced and discussed at private meetings held in Orlando later this month, prior to the kickoff of the 19th annual Athletic Business Conference.

Meeting organizers throughout the armed services are confident their slate of activities will pave the way for an even stronger military. "In the past, other projects have been a higher priority," says Margaret Treland, fitness program specialist for the Air Force. "It's always been more of a fighting-mission focus. Now, the Air Force realizes we need to address this part of the mission to improve the quality of life of the fighters."

U.S. Air Force In addition to introducing matching uniforms for all Air Force fitness staff and launching an Internet-based training program for youth sports administrators, the Air Force is undertaking several new fitness-center construction and renovation projects and developing a new summer youth basketball league.

During the past 18 months, Air Force personnel and facility contractors have assessed the state of fitness centers on 89 bases around the world, prioritizing improvements based on how the facilities meet the industry standards spelled out in the Air Force's Fitness Facility Design Guide. Traditionally, fitness centers were built based on the size of a base's military population. But because users now include families and non-military personnel, the fitness needs at many bases have outgrown the facilities.

Fifteen projects have already been slated for fiscal years 2000-2002 (ending Sept. 30, 2002), and several more scheduled for FY2003-2005 were expected to be released in time for the November meetings, Treland says.

Of the 15 current projects, most are renovations, she adds. For example, RAF Mildenhall, a Royal Air Force base in England, is an older facility that has not grown with the force, Treland says. It lacks several functional spaces expected to be added during renovation.

Meanwhile, Air Force youth officials plan to launch Operation Night Hoops next year, a late-night basketball program aimed at 13- to 18-year-old children of personnel. The program, among the Air Force's most significant youth-sports initiatives in recent years, will run for eight weeks on the 82 bases that have youth centers. Volunteer coaches will draft teams, which will have nicknames, and all players will wear special team T-shirts.

The catch, however, is that all participants must attend educational sessions on such topics as nutrition, drug and alcohol abuse, and career guidance held for an hour prior to the games-which will probably tip off around 10:30 p.m. No workshop, no game, says Dan Schofield, the Air Force's former youth specialist who developed the concept and is now chief of community programs for Peterson Air Force Base. Each base's youthsports administrator will be responsible for bringing in Air Force personnel to lead the discussions. Participants will be required to take tests both prior to and after the season to gauge the progress of their knowledge of workshop topics.

"This addresses not only the need for late-evening programming for teenagers, but it also provides for some education in the process," Schofield says. Because many kids already play on school teams, Operation Night Hoops will probably be a summertime program on most bases, he adds, although bases may choose to run it at other times during the year. Early estimates indicate that about 60 kids per base will participate, making for about 5,000 participants worldwide in 2001. The program was tested at 14 bases earlier this year and involved about 700 kids, Schofield says.

U.S. Army Army fitness centers received a recent boost when the officials with Assistant Chief of Staff for Installation Management (a governing Army body) pegged fitness as one of the first areas to be addressed in the 30-year Army Facility Strategy. "We're up there with the readiness folks as a priority," says Janet MacKinnon, chief of Army MWR Fitness. "All you have to do is mention fitness and you can see an installation commander's eyes light up."

The eyes of commanders, soldiers, their families and other Army personnel will probably be lit for years to come, as the 257 fitness facilities at 129 installations, camps and base-support battalions worldwide undergo a variety of improvements between 2004 and 2014.

Pending budget support, the Army Fitness Strategy will address facility needs prioritized in terms of new construction requirements, potential renovation projects and building and equipment additions, MacKinnon says. "We're saying, 'Don't just rip down these facilities. Maybe they are salvageable and you just need to add a room,' " she says.

In many cases, Army fitness centers (average age: 53 years) were built after World War II. They emphasized gymnasium activities while not anticipating (as few would have) the amount of future space needed for cardiovascular equipment, selectorized weights, group exercise and other modern activities. But now that the Army recently created fitness standards for staff, equipment, programs, training and facilities, Mac-Kinnon says the level of funding should increase to better meet those standards, which are based on standards set forth by the American College of Sports Medicine.

Plans for the first round of fitness-center improvements must be in place by 2002, while future assessments of facilities on individual installations will be ongoing throughout the decade-long process, as Army officials pare their priorities list each year.

The Army has also introduced a new sports administration course that will be a two-day, hands-on primer dealing with managing, marketing, budgeting and soliciting sponsorships for a variety of installation sports activities-including boxing tournaments, wrestling matches, swim meets, marathons and intramural games. The course will be expanded to two weeks next year and integrated into the Army's MWR training curriculum, according to Phil Cota, chief of Army MWR sports. "Before this program, sports administrators had to take a learn-as-you-go approach," he says. The Army's future fitness vision includes partnering its fitness and medical programs by encouraging fitness facility operators to develop classes conducted Army nurses.

U.S. Marine Corps Marine Corps officials are also seeking to build bridges with the armed services medical community, as well as strengthen their intramural programs. Athletic directors from the 18 Marine Corps installations around the world have asked Marine Corps brass to address intramural activities-a subject that hasn't been broached for several years, according to Catherine Ficadenti, fitness/wellness director for the Marine Corps. Intramurals have always been administered at the installation level, where each athletic director tailors programs to fit that installation's demographics. But issues such as finding officials, incorporating computer technology into programming strategies and adding new sports have become challenges athletic directors prefer not to face alone.

In addition to finding new ways to administer intramurals, athletic directors are searching for activities that cater to a younger demographic. Because the Marine Corps is often referred to as the youngest of the armed services, the challenge is to incorporate more adventure sports-such as rock climbing-into the Corps' sports and fitness programs to augment already successful activities such as triathlons and touch football, Ficadenti says. "We need to find exciting activities for people who've been deployed on a ship for six months," she says. "But we still want to keep with tradition. If anyone's high on tradition, it's the Marine Corps."

Among the most successful of the unusual activities is the mud run, a tradition at California's 38,000-person Camp Pendleton that has grown from a few hundred participants to several thousand, according to Ficadenti. "They run through mud, crawl through it, get dirty and try to finish the race," she says.

All intramural and sports activities fall under the Marine Corps Community Services "Semper Fit" programs, which aim to extol the virtues of health-conscious living to all Marine Corps personnel, their families, retired members and their dependents. The Marine Corps received an additional $5.5 million in government funding for FY2001 to promote fitness, athletics and health.

A critical factor in the future success of Semper Fit is the Marine Corps' ongoing effort to build a bridge to the Naval Medical Program and develop a standard operating procedure for rehabilitating Marines, Ficadenti says. Because the Corps does not have a medical branch, injured Marines are treated by the Navy's medical personnel, who, using Semper Fit principles, sometimes continue to work with released individuals who are rehabilitating.

For example, if a Marine fails to meet body composition standards after recovering from an injury, that person would work with Navy Medical personnel-under the tutelage of Semper Fit-to lose the necessary weight in a safe and healthful customized program. That practice has been in effect for years at major bases like Quantico, Ficadenti says, but "we don't want it happening just in isolated pockets," she says. "For years, the fitness industry has brought rehab into the clubs. This should be a no-brainer for us."

U.S. Navy Personal-improvement efforts remain a top priority with the Navy, too. New oneon-one exercise prescriptions will help sailors meet their fitness goals, which are determined by twice-yearly physical fitness assessments (PFAs). A physical fitness enhancement program will also help sailors focus on specific areas in which they need the most help.

And to help make these programs work for sailors at sea, the Navy wants to add fitness directors to each aircraft carrier (which holds about 5,000 people) and each amphibious vessel (which holds 3,000 to 5,000 people). These will be full-time employees hired to help sailors meet their PFA goals and teach crewmembers how to use specific equipment. They will also be in charge of maintaining the equipment. One director was hired this year, Powell says, and he hopes to have a dozen on board by the end of FY2001. By the end of FY2002, about 25 floating fitness directors should be in place, he says.

Meanwhile, the Navy also began the daunting process of installing new fitness equipment on its fleet of about 300 ships. While the goal is to equip all ships with state-of-the-art equipment, Powell says, some ships receive a lot more pieces than others. Larger ships typically house cardiovascular, strength training and free-weight equipment, while smaller ships may be lucky to have a cardiovascular machine or two, a few benches and some dumbbells. All of the equipment, regardless of placement, tends to wear out much faster than land-based equipment. "These things get used a lot," Powell says. "There's not a lot of other games in town, you know what I'm saying? You've got to remember that these are war-fighting machines first and foremost. This isn't the Love Boat."

Indeed, treadmills and other cardio pieces are plugged in and turned on the day a ship sets sail, and they often aren't shut off for the next six months, Powell says. They are subjected to sea salt, variations in air temperature and infrequent wipe-downs, all of which contribute to their rapid deterioration.

The Secretary of the Navy has already committed an additional $2.5 million for fleet fitness equipment, with additional funding expected to help equip more vessels, as well as the land-based fitness centers, Powell says. "Anything we can do to help keep sailors in good physical condition and make a commitment to healthy lifestyle decisions is what we're all about," he says.

More than 400 military personnel will attend the third annual Military Fitness and Sports Leadership Conference in Orlando, Nov. 27-29. Last year, nearly 600 members of the armed forces attended the Athletic Business Conference, which runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2.