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The Tao of Boot Camp

[ 26 ] August 31, 2010 |

The Times led today with an expose of the US Army’s rehabilitated physical training system:

That familiar standby, the situp, is gone, or almost gone. Exercises that look like pilates or yoga routines are in. And the traditional bane of the new private, the long run, has been downgraded.

This is the Army’s new physical-training program, which has been rolled out this year at its five basic training posts that handle 145,000 recruits a year. Nearly a decade in the making, its official goal is to reduce injuries and better prepare soldiers for the rigors of combat in rough terrain like Afghanistan.

The rationale for the changes are the general levels of ill-fitness the Army sees in large percentages of new recruits. Youth raised on sugary sodas and saturated fat lack the bone density and endurance to safely train the old way. As I discussed last November when the DOD released its report “Too Fat to Fight,” this public health problem is also a national security problem and I concur with our generals that it ought to be solved by stronger federal intervention into – and funding for – healthy food in public schools.

What’s missed in the Times story, though, is the potential mental health benefits of physical training that includes yoga. Studies have shown that yoga reduces propensity for depression in general and specifically in the context of high-stress occupations. Given the increasing understanding of the emotional and behavioral health impacts of military service, incorporating a mindfulness-based exercise culture into boot camp may not only prevent muscle strain and bone injuries while in training, but also contribute to more balanced, well-disciplined, resilient recruits.

It’s not a pancea, since there are many factors that account for PTSD and the climbing rate of military suicides. But the benefits of yoga are already understood by those retroactively treating PTSD in veterans. In some cases, the military is going even farther.

There may also be broader effects within the military in socializing recruits to take seriously the mindfulness training that has until now been associated with women and hippies. Previously service-personnel who incorporated yoga training into their daily routine dealt with a trade-off between the positive health benefits and the stigma they experienced because of the view of yoga is “not masculine.” This has been changing modestly in recent years. Mainstreaming of yoga (or even yoga-like exercises) by the military as an institution will go even farther change that perception – and perhaps change military culture as well.

It would be interesting to see some studies exploring these potential effects as the military rolls out these changes.

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Comments (26)

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  1. Hippie Jim says:

    If there is any benefits regarding dropping levels of PTSD that are associated with changes in training, I don’t anticipate that the DoD’s PR team will hesitate to pick up on that and run with it. But I have my doubts that we will see such a benefit. For one thing I would suspect that yoga is only able to marginally affect the condition at all, and even then only if yoga is practiced throughout the time and after that the psychic injury is suffered. Boot camp is not battle and boot camp isn’t the time or place that soldiers receive the damages that result in PTSD.

    And those benefits to yoga would be most expressed in context. Workout classes and videos like PowerYoga remove yoga from its stress-reducing context. I suspect that the macho boot camp environment will create a yoga experience that’s more adrenaline than deep breathing.

    I suppose the best benefit were likely to see here is a de-stigmatizing of yoga that later sufferers of PTSD may capitalize on as they seek out alternative therapies for their condition, helping them seek out yoga sooner rather than later.

  2. Hogan says:

    You call those boots polished? Drop and give me twenty halasanas, maggot!

    (OT and I hesitate to ask, but I need closure here: did Tsunami turn up?)

    • Thanks for asking about Tsunami; we definitely aren’t giving up and I’ll be sure to keep you updated. He was spotted so we now know his approximate location. Today, I’m shopping for cat-traps.

      • Hogan says:

        Glad to hear it. My Nick got out once when I didn’t see him go (and he was hard to retrieve even when I did), and stayed out overnight. We were getting ready to put up signs and knock on neighbors’ doors when we heard him yowling in the back alley somewhere. I finally found him hiding out on a neighbor’s deck, still yowling, but apparently also afraid he’d be in trouble. (I don’t know how he inherited my conscience, but somehow he did.) Our soulsickness cleared up quickly after that.

        Best of luck.

  3. central texas says:

    Cue Paul to drop by to let us know that there is no such thing as a fat person and if there were it would have no health consequences…

  4. Slocum says:

    You must keep your body clean and fit for the Fatherland.

  5. ThresherK says:

    The best part about yoga? Seeing it kick someone’s ass after they sneer that it’s “not masculine”.

    Not that I want to bring up the Chickenhawks, but I suspect there’s a correlation there. (Correct me as needed with your actual observations.)

  6. Amanda in the South Bay says:

    Bah, running was one of the things I was always good at in the Army, and that I always maxed out on PT tests. It seemed like the people who always denigrated running were those who were rather big boned, not particularly fast runners, who boasted about how far they could hump their rucksack.

    It actually seems like the Army is giving into the civilian world-if recruits aren’t getting enough calcium to avoid stress fractures, running should be modified, not eliminated

    • Medrawt says:

      Well, it sounds like they’re not eliminating it, but deemphasizing it. As somebody who was never in the Army, it does seem to me like “how far they could hump their rucksack” seems more relevant than the kind of running I understand to traditionally be a part of physical training in the military, but I guess I could be wrong on both counts.

      (I’m probably currently in the “too fat too serve” category – and rapidly approaching “too old,” I guess – but even at peak fitness, I was certainly somebody who’d do better at the rucksack trudging than long distance running, so maybe I’m biased.)

    • mpowell says:

      According to the article they certainly aren’t eliminating running. It just sounds like they’ve decided they can’t throw long runs at recruits early on because they’ll get injured or won’t benefit for other reasons. It does sound pretty plausible.

  7. Simple Mind says:

    So this is what defeat by Asian armies does to the military. All that “can you take the abuse” nonsense handed out by drill sergeants is finally shown to be the bully-like hazing it always was.

  8. cyntax says:

    It’s funny, but twenty years ago my DI’s recommended that everyone meditate at the end of the day. Now they didn’t call it meditation; instead they said we should try taking 5-10 minutes at the end of the day to sit on our bunks and quitely practice breathing slowly. But as someone who grew in California, they couldn’t fool me.

    • Jager says:

      I got the same advice from my DI, except it was suggested we do it in the “front leaning rest position”.

      Does this mean that the horse turd sized rocks have been removed from all the PT fields, the ones immortalized by Sgt McGinnis when he said,
      “don’t move those rocks young trooper, they were put there especially for you”!

  9. Stag Party Palin says:

    This is a very positive development. If we’re going to send our children out to die for Chevron, we should definitely keep them from getting depressed about it.

    Also, based on other hot news, why isn’t the Army turning all their recruits into moderate drinkers? Don’t they live longer?

  10. rj says:

    IRRC, yoga developed first among warriors in India. But more generally, all those esoteric Eastern health practices came out of the martial arts. This approach by the army has been around a while.

    • No, other way around. Martial arts traditions arise in philosophical and meditative context of Hinduism, Buddhism, etc.

      Yoga is/was a form of physical meditation, the ultimate goal of which is to move the consciousness beyond the body.

  11. Youth raised on sugary sodas and saturated fat lack the bone density and endurance to safely train the old way.

    Correct on the first part of that statement, woefully misinformed on the second part. Common wisdom to the contrary, eating saturated fats does not make you fat. What does make you fat are eating the massive amounts of carbohydrates that comprise the bulk of the American diet. All of these foods – chips, pasta, potatoes, refined rice, bread, creals, etc. – provide little nutritional value, and are converted by the body into glucose. So, sugar is the problem, but “sugary sodas” aren’t the only source.

  12. Mojo says:

    I’m surprised to hear that there was such a radical change in US diet between 1995 and 2008 that it resulted in a 70% increase in recruits failing their physicals. But a General would never just make stuff up so it must be true. In other news, poor eating habits among US young people has resulted in a dramatic increase in criminal behavior as evidenced by the doubling of the number of recruits with felony histories between 2006 and 2008.

  13. ActiveDuty says:

    I’m active duty Army now and what I’ve learned about PT (physical training) is simple: Very few people enjoy PT. Many soldiers would probably enjoy PT more, and get more out of it, if some sport were incorporated into it. In fact, the Army’s Field Manual for PT, FM 21-20 (yes, the Army has a Field Manual for everything), does mention using sports as part of a unit’s training regimen (usually done at company level). But any unit’s PT regimen is really determined by the imagination and interest of the unit’s senior NCOs. It might be heretical of me to say so but the Army isn’t really full of to many imaginative NCOs. Mostly they’re just “checking the box” when it comes to PT.

    Another point, which is almost taboo to make, is the difference between combat arms and support units. You’re not likely to find unfit soldiers in infantry units. The fat tends to accumulate in the support units, and what I said above applies doubly so.

    This recent development is, I think, the Army’s attempt to inject some variety and imagination into what’s become a stale routine: Stretch a little, some flutter kicks, some push-up pyramids, crunches, now let’s go for a run. That bores almost everybody. But it’s a leadership failure. Physically unfit NCOs can’t produce physically unfit soldiers.

    I think this new regimen might help a little but in the long run soldier fitness will still regress to the mean. Most didn’t join to be fit soldiers. They joined as part of the economic draft. If you were athletic and somewhat fit as an adolescent in school, you’ll likely be fit as a soldier. If not, the Army is unlikely to change you much.

  14. McDuff says:

    I like Dennis Perrin’s take on it:

    The imperial brass are concerned that young Americans are too fat to fight, and with more wars being planned, this is seen as a national emergency.

    Obesity is indeed a serious problem, but if it helps slow the killing machine, then Super Size us. Lenin said that capitalists would sell the rope that revolutionaries would hang them with. Little did he suspect that the rope would be used to hold up pants on expanding waistlines, high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease serving as the noose. It’s fitting in a way. Americans are literally eating themselves into oblivion. Who needs 9/11s when dollar menus do the trick?

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