The other day on the way home from walking my son to school, I stopped at Bronco Youth Center to watch a group of soldiers doing physical training. They were playing flag football and clearly having a blast.
There was a lot of laughter and trash-talk in between bouts of sprinting and throwing, and I found myself feeling suddenly wistful.
Once upon a time, I did Army PT. If you had told me back then that someday I’d miss it, I would have vehemently denied it. Because I thought I hated it. Being forced to wake up at zero dark thirty to stand in formation and then exercise en masse seemed not only ludicrous but cruel. I was always the kind of person who could (and did) run on her own and felt it was insulting and unnecessary to be forced to do it. My fellow soldiers and I would blearily stumble together into some semblance of formation and stretch, then go on a run and afterwards, line up for calisthenics. Inevitably, there would be one guy (or gal) in the group who had digestive issues or someone who reeked of a brewery from the previous night’s revelry. And I was usually right behind him or her.
The funny thing about PT that I vividly recall is no matter how cranky and sleepy I was, I would begin to feel weirdly good once we’d been running for a while. There is something about morning workouts that get the endorphins flowing quickly. I was assigned to Fort Huachuca, Ariz., back then, and the desert scenery was beautiful. Sunrises — of which I saw many there — were glorious, often a soft pinkish coral in the beginning, darkening to a more dramatic purplish-red shade before giving way to the golden beginning of the day.
However, as lovely as watching the sun rise was, this was not the Army’s reason for getting us up early to sweat together. According to the 25th Infantry Division, “Physical fitness is the cornerstone of combat readiness,” and the Army’s goal is to prepare all soldiers for the physical stress they might very well encounter on the battlefield. In addition, doing PT together increases camaraderie and encourages soldiers to work together as a team.
I will agree with that — not only was the friendly competition during runs motivating but we definitely had more than a little fun joking, gossiping and being silly. And though I question whether anything can truly prepare people for the potential rigors of the battlefield, PT is at least a way to get soldiers generally fit.
And then there are the PT tests. Oh, how I would dread them, though I always did above average. The pushups were my weakest category while I could usually max the sit ups and the run. The Army PT test hasn’t changed in the 20 years since I wore the uniform — soldiers are still expected to knock out as many pushups as they can in two minutes, followed by sit ups and the 2-mile run. The combination of these three scores is their total — 300 is considered perfect. The problem with the PT test (other than it is once again conducted painfully early) is how rubbery your legs feel after the sit ups, because the main muscle group used to get momentum and speed during this exercise are the hip flexors, not abdominal muscles. I remember my legs feeling weak as noodles for the first mile of that run.
Although the old trio of running, pushups and sit ups are definitely not obsolete in terms of fitness benefits, the Army has wisely widened its program over the years. Now soldiers often perform yoga, functional fitness moves and interval training. Sometimes soldiers are given the opportunity to lift weights at the gym and do other more modern and trendy forms of exercise, such as Pilates and Zumba.
For all its good intentions, the Army PT program cannot guarantee that soldiers will adopt a healthy lifestyle. Ironically, many soldiers get out of the military and vow to never again don a pair of running shoes again. Or while they’re still in, they subsist on donuts, fast food and beer, and sometimes cigarettes.
Luckily for me, Army PT further emphasized the importance of physical fitness and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and has played a part in keeping exercise in my daily routine. I just don’t have to do it at the crack of dawn now.