Fitness: A gift from the Air Force

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Mark E. Smallwood
  • 366th Aeromedical Dental Squadron commander
It's painfully early when the alarm clock goes off -- again. I can't afford to hit the snooze button one more time. Outside my window is nothing but darkness. The wind is blowing, and it's about 25 degrees out there. As I get out of bed, my wife murmurs that I'm crazy and falls immediately back to sleep.

A few moments later, my running shoes hit the pavement. Every fiber of my being resents the fact I'm out running through the dark morning in the freezing cold. All I want to do is to go back to bed.

Jump ahead later in the morning, and I feel great. The endorphins are running through my body and I feel a strong sense of accomplishment. The muscles in my legs hurt just enough to remind me of the four miles I ran earlier, and I go through the day knowing I'm taking good care of my body.

I think to myself that the Air Force fitness requirement is one of the best things the Air Force ever did for me.

While many individuals see the fitness requirements as a burden, the reality is the Air Force did us and our families a huge favor. The Air Force holds its Airmen to greater accountability for fitness than virtually all other Americans. I'm a great example. If the Air Force didn't require me to exercise three times per week, I'm pretty sure I'd not make the time for it. In our busy lives, it's just too easy to let work commitments, time with family, countless chores and other less-strenuous activities keep us away from getting the exercise our bodies need.

Inactivity among Americans is a national crisis. According to a 2005 National Center for Health Statistics survey, 62 percent of adults don't engage in vigorous, leisure-time physical activity. The survey found only one out of every four adults engage in vigorous physical activity three or more times per week. 

So what happens if we don't stay physically fit? If you're in the military, much of it is about combat capability. If you deploy, you must be able to run wearing 35 pounds of combat gear to a bunker to escape from incoming mortars. The Air Force can't afford to have you not physically fit and having you fall out and force others to carry you to safety. In combat, there's a real potential you could find yourself in a life-threatening situation where you need to pull a fellow Airmen out of a burning vehicle for example. As Airmen, we count on each other to be physically fit to take care of business. 

The Air Force is even more serious now about individuals maintaining minimum fitness standards. Commanders must take administrative action against those who don't show progress within 90 days after failing the test. Pending changes to the Air Force fitness program will reflect fitness test passing or failure ratings in a box on future performance reports.

Additionally, the test's "marginal" category will go away. People will either pass the test with a score of 75 percent or greater or they fail.

All of us can see how the Air Force's fitness requirements lead to improved personal health. According to the Center for Disease Control, regular physical activity helps build and maintain healthy bones and muscles. It helps reduce the risk of obesity and chronic issues like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Regular physical activity also reduces feelings of depression and anxiety and promotes psychological well-being.

On the other hand, physical inactivity increases the risk of heart disease, developing colon cancer, hypertension or dying prematurely.

For those of us with families, the exercise offers plenty of benefits. Parents who make active lifestyles a priority are healthier, more energetic and set a positive example for their children to follow.

Based on the Air Force fitness program metrics, people stationed here do an excellent job staying in shape. Of the more than 3,700 individuals in the program, 98 percent taking the fitness test over the last 12 months passed. Wing fitness managers can be proud of the work they do to keep their folks current in their fitness tests. Mountain Home maintained the number one ranking in Air Combat Command for the last three straight months.

Whether you like to run, use a cardiovascular machine, swim or take part in another type of aerobic activity, doing so keeps you happier and healthier. What some may view as an annoying mandatory requirement is actually a gift the Air Force requires us to give to ourselves and our families -- one that improves the overall quality of our lives.