Internalizing a fitness mindset

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Matthew Sandelier
  • 49th Force Support Squadron commander

As I look at the Airmen around me, I've noticed there's a broad spectrum of fitness mindsets.  Clearly many people have truly internalized the Fit-to-Fight mentality.  They exercise daily, many to extremes well beyond the Air Force fitness requirements, running marathons, triathlons, powerlifting, or Cross Fitting.  Other Airmen struggle to maintain the AF standards, cycling through periods of inactivity or a 1-2 month surge in an attempt to pass a semiannual fitness assessment. 

If you're in the latter group, the fitness "strugglers", you may try to convince yourself that the Airmen who are enthusiastic about fitness are just gifted--that it comes easy to them, and they don't struggle like you do.  They wake up with more energy than you, or somehow don't have as much work or challenges at home as you.  How do they find two hours a day to ride a bike, or hit the trails for a 10-mile training run? The stresses of work and life have degraded your fitness routine to quick workouts maybe once or twice a week, which isn't enough to maintain your desired level of fitness, let alone see the improvement you hope for.

If you're one of the group dedicated to regular fitness, you're proud of your successes, and you should be. It's taken hard work to achieve what you have. You commit the energy to focus on fitness, sometimes sacrificing your time in other areas. Some of you set fitness goals and then work hard to achieve those goals. You should be recognized for your hard work.

What makes these two groups so different? Is it time management? Do those focused on fitness really find a way to carve out enough time to exercise better than everyone else? Admittedly, sometimes I crawl into bed at night and wonder "where did the day go? I was planning on working out today, but I just couldn't fit it in." Then grab the DVR remote and watch three recorded episodes of Big Bang Theory before dozing off. I rationalize that an hour of mindless TV helps me unwind mentally after a long day.  But wouldn't a quick 5K run around the neighborhood provide the same mental break, while also helping meet my fitness goals?

So besides time management, why do some struggle while others excel at fitness?  I don't like to generalize, but in my view, most often, those who are focused on fitness have found a way to truly enjoy exercising. They have found a hobby in exercise. They've set goals well beyond the standards, not because they have to pass a test, but because they've challenged themselves on a personal level and enjoy the fight to meet their own goals.

Personally, I've spent most of my career as a fitness struggler. Working out brought me little enjoyment, and I found myself as an outsider to the fitness craze that seemed to be enveloping the Air Force around me. I questioned those who found value in getting a 100 on their fitness assessment when all I wanted was to just pass. After a few years with that mentality, and limited personal commitment to fitness, getting a passing score became increasingly more difficult. I struggled to do "just enough", but as I got older "just enough" was getting harder each year. 

Eventually, it hit me--joy or no joy, I needed to dig in and work at it. I bought a new pair of running shoes, signed up for a local 10K, and set some goals. I pulled myself out of bed each morning to run, starting off with an easy pace and relatively short distances. Even the mornings when I was tired and wanted to hit the snooze button again I stuck with it, and before I knew it, it started to get easier. I found I was meeting some of my goals, and it felt surprisingly good to do so. The fitness-focused Airmen I used to question were not all gifted with innate abilities, they just were more committed. It started making sense. 

Have I really gotten to the point where I enjoy running? No. I'm not quite there. Whether my schedule requires an early morning run to jump start my day or an evening run to help me unwind, every time I lace up my running shoes, I struggle with a desire to hit that snooze button or grab the DVR remote. But I have learned to enjoy running more than I use to, and most days my running shoes win the fight. I've found the key to my success is setting modest goals and meeting them. Then, I raise the bar for myself, and start again. Years ago I never would have admitted it, but succeeding in fitness can be addicting and rewarding.

I'm not a fitness fanatic yet, but I have found the benefit of internalizing a fitness mindset outweighs the attitude that "just enough" is good enough.