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The Tao of Boot Camp

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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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