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How the Military Keeps Its Members in Fighting Shape

Jason Scott
[Photo by of Technical Sergeant Lealan Buehrer]
[Photo by of Technical Sergeant Lealan Buehrer]

Regardless of a person's career, maintaining physical fitness is an important aspect of life. For members of the military, physical fitness takes on additional significance that can perhaps be best summarized in a single word: Readiness. 

In this context, the word readiness carries a particular weight, as it connotes why military members need to be ready. That said, maintaining combat readiness while on base — and on a day-to-day basis — doesn't have to be a matter of life and death.

Such is the case at Truax Field Air National Guard Base in Madison, Wis., where members of the 115th Fighter Wing maintain their physical fitness in order to pass an annual assessment as required by both the Air National Guard and the U.S. Air Force. According to Technical Sergeant Samuel Keizer, whose squadron is responsible for administering the tests on base, four components comprise the annual test. 

"You have your 1.5-mile run, pushups and a sit-up component, and all three of those are timed," Keizer says. "Depending upon your age and gender, you have X amount of time to complete X amount of [pushup and sit-up reps] or complete your run. The fourth component is a waist measurement component that's designed to check that your BMI is still within a healthy range."

While a sliding scale exists, the test does represent a physical challenge. The Air National Guard uses the same standards as active duty members of the Air Force. So how do members stay in shape while on base? 
 

Personal responsibility
Lieutenant Colonel Penny Ripperger, Force Support Squadron Commander at Truax Field, says that for the most part, staying physically fit falls on the shoulders of each individual. 

"Throughout the year, airmen are expected to maintain their physical fitness so that they can pass these tests," Ripperger says. "But as far as the day-to-day, on our base anyway, it's pretty individualized."

Most airmen on the base are members of the Air National Guard, which means that they are only on base for drills a couple of days each month. However, as Captain Leslie Westmont points out, just because Guard members have civilian lives — and the responsibilities that accompany them — it doesn't mean they're held to a lighter standard.

"They're still held to the Air Force standard, even though they only come to drill two days a month," she says. "They have families, they have kids, they have jobs, they have all these things — and on top of all of that, they're still maintaining that physical fitness standard somehow through the month, and passing their tests. I think that's really an awesome thing to give them credit for, because they have so many demands on them already, and that's just one more."

Full-time members on base are given time during standard working hours each week to devote to their personal fitness. "They have time in the day to work out. It's three hours a week that they can work out on company time, and they do," says Ripperger. "We have a running track on base, we have a fitness facility, and then some people go off base and do their own thing, as well, but they have time dedicated to ensuring that they can meet those physical standards."
 

Fit to Fight

Much like the rest of the fitness community, the military is adopting a comprehensive approach to total wellness to ensure that its members aren't just good soldiers, but good people. 

In the Air Force, the Comprehensive Airman Fitness program — also known as Fit to Fight — is built on four pillars:

Mental: Approaching life's challenges in a positive way by demonstrating self-control, stamina and good character with choices and actions; seeking help and offering help.

Physical: Performing and excelling in physical activities that require aerobic fitness, endurance, strength, flexibility and body composition derived through exercise, nutrition and training.

Social: Developing and maintaining trusted, valued friendships that are personally fulfilling and foster good communication, including exchange of ideas, views and experiences.

Spiritual: Strengthening a set of beliefs, principles or values that sustain an individual's sense of wellbeing and purpose. 

Source: Comprehensive Airman Fitness

 

Facilities and activities
The fitness facility at the 115th "is by no means expansive," according to Keizer — but it does offer all of the equipment one can typically find at a traditional fitness center.

"It's got your basic cardio equipment — treadmills, ellipticals — and then a number of free weights, as well," Keizer says. 

In all, the facility, a space of "a couple hundred square feet," has three treadmills, three ellipticals, three stationary bikes, two sets of dumbbells ranging from 10 to 80 pounds, two squat racks and benches, and 30 pieces of selectorized equipment — more than enough to cover the base's demands.

The only complaint? "One of the complaints I get during the week is that those dumbbells do not go high enough," Keizer laughs.

The facility is available 24 hours a day, but it's not the only way members on base keep in shape. Some squadrons will organize group activities that are both fitness-focused and fun. "Squadrons kind of take it on themselves," says Ripperger, "They do PT together, or they do physical activities together as a group. It kind of depends on the leadership or the members in that unit who want to maintain that."

"They'll play flag football or frisbee or sometimes they'll do kickball," Westmont adds. "Sometimes instead of using that three hours a week individually, a lot of people will get groups together to do organized recreational fitness, as well."

All agree that group activities help to improve the sense of camaraderie on base, building friendships between and among airmen and contributing to overall readiness.
 

Acing the New Army Combat Fitness Test

The Army recently unveiled an age- and gender-neutral fitness assessment designed to test soldiers' ability to perform in combat. 

The six-event test will become the official physical evaluation for the Army in October 2020. According to the Army, in order to receive a perfect score on the new Army Combat Fitness Test, soldiers would need to earn 100 points in each of the six events. Here's how that translates:

• Three-repetition maximum deadlift (340 pounds = 100 points)
• Standing power medicine ball throw (13.5 meters = 100 points)
• Hand-release push-up (70 reps = 100 points)
• Sprint-drag-carry (complete in 1:40 = 100 points)
• Leg Tuck (20 reps = 100 points) 
• Two-mile run (complete in 12:45 = 100 points)

*Source: US Army ACFT Field Testing Manual Score Scales

Sound impossible? Consider the case of Major Timothy Cox of the 22nd Chemical Battalion in Fort Bliss, Texas, who in August became the first soldier to score a perfect 600 on the new ACFT. That effort was just enough for Cox to surpass Specialist Ryan Sowder of the 2112th Transportation Company in Burlington, Ky., who held the previous high score of 597 set in June.

 

Remedial action
Despite the available resources, not every member is going to pass the fitness assessment every year. When failures occur, there are protocols in place to help members get back in shape.

According to Keizer, the base has a partnership with a local health system, through which it runs the Fitness Improvement Program, or FIP for short. 

"In the case of a failure of not meeting standards, members are enrolled in this program, and they attend these courses designed specifically to work on and pass our four requirements," he says. "A member has six months from their failure to prepare for and pass their next fitness assessment from their failure, and so they'll be attending the FIP on a monthly basis in between that time."

In addition, the base contracts with Duro Health, a company that provides rehabilitative and physical therapy services to members dealing with injuries. Ali Spurduti, a physical therapist with Duro, works specifically with pilots at Truax Field.

Physical therapy is integrated on-site, and members have unlimited access to facilities that Spurduti describes as similar to a typical athletic training room. 

That space operates with a "barbershop mentality," according to Spurduti. "People are allowed to come in whenever they need to or feel like they want to," she says. "And along those lines of camaraderie, trying to break down the stigmas that if you do have something going on, or if you do have a little soreness or what have you, it's okay — it's the importance of taking care of yourself, as well as the people you're working with."

There's no question that maintaining physical fitness is important for military members, but there's also no doubt about the challenge that presents. Still, the facilities and programs in place at bases around the world ensure our men and women in uniform stay in shape — and are ready to meet whatever challenges they may face.

"What I've learned that civilians don't actually realize is how much a physical demand the pilots take on," she says. "If you think about it, there are maintainers and there are all these people who keep the jet flying, and there's so much time and energy that goes into keeping the mechanical machine running, that there's limited resources that keep the human component running, and that's where we dip in."


This article originally appeared in the November | December 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Maintaining military readiness through fitness ." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.

 

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