Fitness before, during, and after military service

There is no question that military training and service is physically and mentally demanding. Living and working in dangerous environments has clear risks to physical and mental health. For this reason, military recruits and active-duty soldiers require a high level of strength and endurance along with good stress management and other coping strategies. The importance of exercise and fitness for military service is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.

One goal of military training is to develop these skills and abilities in already fit and healthy recruits or continuing service members. Unfortunately, many potential recruits are ineligible for military service because of physical limitations due to poor fitness. This is due to the common pattern of inactivity and obesity among young people. A report from the Council for a Strong America finds that being overweight is the major reason that civilian military recruits are deemed medically unfit for service. These attributes are more likely to be lacking among overweight recruits. Equally troubling is the fact that poor physical fitness disqualifies a high percentage of young men and women who are at a “healthy” weight. A 2010 report, written by a panel of retired military leaders, raises these same concerns, and has the ominous title, “Too Fat to Fight.” A follow-up report, “Still Too Fat to Fight,” suggests that the situation hasn’t improved. Not only are many young people disqualified from military service, those who do enter basic training may sustain injuries that delay or terminate their training. These injuries are more likely to occur in recruits who are obese and unfit at entry. Recuits who lack resilience and stress management skills are also less likely to complete training. This highlights the importance of promoting good mental and physical health among young people, especially those who are planning to serve in the military. Maintaining physical and mental health is also critical for active-duty troops and reservists to maintain readiness. Not only is exercise the best way to maintain physical strength and endurance, but it is also important for stress management and reducing anxiety and depression. Exercise plays in important role for the health and wellbeing of military veterans. First, regular exercise helps prevent a decline in fitness and can prevent weight gain that is common following military service. Additionally, exercise is a key component of physical therapy for recovery from injuries sustained during service. Equally important is the mental health benefits of regular exercise. Depression and anxiety are common among military veterans. It is well-established that exercise is effective for treating these conditions, both alone and in combination with other therapies. This is especially relevant for soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It is estimated that as many as 20–30% of soldiers meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD. Most soldiers diagnosed with PTSD also have or develop other conditions including major depressive disorder, anxiety, or substance abuse disorder. The treatment for PTSD is challenging and includes cognitive behavioral therapy, medications, and other lifestyle modifications. Among these is exercise. Prior exercise has been shown to reduce the risk of developing PTSD and exercise itself can reduce PTSD symptoms, with and without other treatment. All of this supports the importance of exercise for developing and maintaining physical fitness, physical health, and mental health among military recruits, active-duty soldiers, and veterans. The rest of us can gain these same benefits from regular exercise, too.
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