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Air Force Changes Fitness Program; Troops Work Out Stress

WASHINGTON — The military is renewing its focus on fitness as personnel prepare for deployment and are sent to stressful locales. In fact, a recent report by the U.S. Air Force shows that troops at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in Cuba are using exercise to combat stress, according to a recent report from the U.S. Air Force.

“We're seeing a change in the culture of the Air Force,” Lt. Col. Sherry Sasser, chief of health promotions for the Air Force surgeon general, said in the report. “Gyms are being used morning, noon and night and are packed. Units are running together. It's wonderful to see.”

Air Force health officials are considering seven changes to bolster the fitness trend and improve the program. These recommendations include adding height and weight into standards to accommodate airmen who are unable to achieve the minimum abdominal circumference but are still at a normal weight for their height, lengthening the run times for tests done at higher elevations, and retesting airmen who are rated “marginal” at 90 days instead of 180 days. The Air Force is also considering promoting nutrition as an important part of education and intervention, emphasizing regular physical training rather than test results, reinforcing commanders' accountability, and moving the waist-circumference to a controlled area for people rated poor or marginal who are being retested to reduce inconsistencies. Also, 50- to 54-year-old females were previously not consistent with other categories, so their fitness criteria will be adjusted for age according to the American College of Medicine standards, and a new category will be added for those older than 60, according to the report.

Changes were revealed during the program's first annual review by three panels — functional, external and leadership. Air Force officials conducted the functional review, while outside agencies and universities offered their opinions in the external review. The leadership review will begin in late April and will randomly select commanders and senior enlisted leaders via e-mail to take a Web-based survey. Changes are expected to be implemented in June.

Besides keeping the military in shape, fitness programs are also helping to combat troop's stress.

Experts and leaders are developing methods to deal with the challenging conditions of working on Naval Station Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, an isolated island base and enemy combatant detention facility. Dealing with both special issues and everyday concerns, service members at the base are on one of the front lines in the war on terrorism creating significant “combat stress.”

“What we've found though is the opportunities afforded them when they come off shift and out of the camps, out from inside the wire, allow them an opportunity to relax a bit and have helped significantly,” Army Brig. Gen. Jay Hood, task force commander, said in the report.

With a seaside location and year-round warm weather at Guantanamo Bay, water sports are popular, and the base features a golf course, several gyms and intramural sports teams.

Service members can become overwhelmed by personal problems with peers or leaders, relationship problems or by the stress of dealing with detainees, Army Sgt. Michelle Olson, a combat stress control specialist with the 1972nd Combat Stress Control Unit from Seattle, said in an Air Force report.

Troops working inside the wire must pass through several sets of intimidating double gates, and must cover their nametapes and never call each other by their real names while they're near detainees. And some at the base have problems knowing that some of the men they are guarding have sworn to kill their countrymen. Furthermore, troops in the task force run 24-hour operations, and the sheer workload can overload some people, particularly those used to working routine, Monday-through-Friday jobs, she said.

Specialists are on hand to listen and help troops deal with their combat stress. Olson stressed the importance of exercise, good nutrition and off-duty activities in successfully dealing with stress problems. Stress-management, anger-management and time-management courses are also offered at the base's fleet and family service center.

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