Deploying fitness


U.S. Navy Fitness is looking for a few good men and women. Okay, not just a few — more like 150 fitness professionals to staff its fitness facilities on ashore bases in the next three to five years and another dozen to work on ships.

It's no surprise. With roughly 10,000 sailors in the Middle East as part of the global war on terrorism and an already stressed Army and Marine Corps, fitness demands are high.

“As times change, we're still evolving both on the ashore and afloat side,” says Kelly Powell, head of the Navy Morale, Welfare and Recreation's (MWR) Mission Essential Branch. “You're going to see us do different things [to keep our sailors fit].”

As more ships are being used in abroad conflicts, the Navy is recognizing the importance of having a dedicated fitness director on board. Although most large Naval ships are already staffed with a fitness director, or fit boss, smaller ships typically aren't. Fitness directors not only run group exercise classes on board, they also meet with sailors and Marines one-on-one to develop exercise plans that can be performed in small spaces — a necessity during deployment.

“We're actively recruiting waterfront fitness specialists,” Powell says. “Their job is to help, and they're dedicated solely to the smaller ships.”

Prior to the mid 1990s, the military invested little money on fitness equipment both afloat and ashore unless it was related to sports. That all changed when the aerobic dance movement began and overall fitness began to gain in popularity. By the early 1990s, Navy Sports had evolved into Navy Fitness, Powell recalls. In recent years, stricter physical readiness tests and the obesity epidemic have increased the importance placed on fitness.

Today, the Navy puts its money where its mouth is. Navy MWR spends an average of $2.5 million-$3.5 million a year on upgrades or replacement of fitness equipment in its ashore fitness facilities and will provide $5 million a year for fitness equipment for about 281 ships.

The Air Force has also seen its funding for fitness increase greatly in the past 10 to 15 years. The additional funding has translated to an increase in the quantity and quality of equipment at deployed locations, says Danielle Taylor, Air Force fitness and sports branch chief.

“Most fitness centers operate out of hardened buildings or pre-fabricated buildings versus the tents from 10 to 15 years ago,” she says. “Furthermore, group exercise classes were rarely offered and fitness center staffs weren't trained to offer specialized classes or personal training [in the past]. Programming for fitness centers has increased greatly, and personnel are expected to remain in shape while deployed.”

As the military pursues a fitter force, this trend in fitness spending is seen across all services, says one military and government sales representative for a manufacturer of cardiovascular and strength equipment. He couldn't provide hard numbers, but the representative has seen military sales increase a “tremendous amount” in the last few years, especially since the war began in Iraq, he says.

Creative Combat

Funding isn't the only thing increasing. Creativity in developing exercise plans and programs has also been on the rise.

The conflict abroad means military personnel don't always come back to bases — often they come back to base camps, which don't allow for full-blown fitness centers. This makes fitness professionals' jobs challenging but not impossible. Resistance bands and other exercises using body weight such as push-ups and lunges can help service members get in their physical conditioning, Powell says.

In the Air Force, all deployed locations offer a fitness center with cardio, selectorized and free-weight equipment available for self-directed fitness. Often, fitness staff at these locations organize 5K and 10K runs, lifting competitions, sports tournaments and other special events throughout an 120-180 day deployment, depending on the training of the fitness center staff and volunteers. Programming options usually include aerobics, circuit training, spinning classes, and occasionally karate, cardio kickboxing, specialized abdominal classes and more. Most locations also have at least one certified personal trainer to facilitate workout programs for airmen.

Even when a deployed location is a “bare base” with no or little equipment, self-contained fitness kits including treadmills, bikes and weights can be delivered and be ready for use within hours of arrival, says Alan Ray, chief of recreation support for the services at reserve command headquarters at Robins Air Force Base, GA.

Air Force fitness professionals also make sure airmen have the tools and knowledge to stay fit regardless of their location.

“Air Force Services personnel pass on their training and knowledge as a fitness professional to the customer through group training or one-on-one training, whether in deployed locations or at a home station,” Ray says. “Additionally, we provide pocket-size training, instruction and workout log books to help the customer.”

Out to Sea

Admittedly, working in military fitness takes a certain type of person. That's particularly true when serving on a deployed ship, Powell says. With limited space and an endless view of ocean, the job takes creativity, skill and a sense of adventure.

Jodie Byrkett had that sense of adventure. After interning in the Naval Hospital Oak Harbor in Oak Harbor, WA, Byrkett developed a taste for fitness. The satellite physical therapy department she worked in at the hospital was in the MWR fitness center, and she enjoyed working there so much that she changed her major, interned with MWR and, after earning her master's degree in exercise science, became a full-time fitness assistant.

After eight-and-half years as a hospital corpsman, she signed up for two deployments as an afloat fitness director — a three-month surge deployment to support Operation Enduring Freedom and the Global War on Terrorism, and a six-month deployment to support Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Global War on Terrorism.

Lack of space on any ship is a challenge, especially when you're out to sea with a full complement of Marines on board, Byrkett says of her time on the USS Kearsarge.

“However, it forces me to be creative and extremely flexible. I have to be a master at keeping our workouts as efficient, effective and as enjoyable as possible with the space available,” she says.

Byrkett is the ship's fitness expert — answering questions, creating personalized workouts and leading group exercise classes. During her most recent deployment, she offered a 16-week Body Transformation Challenge, in which sailors and Marines lost weight and decreased their body fat through exercise and healthy eating. She awarded prizes to all that participated. The top two winners lost 33 pounds and 14 percent body fat and 29.5 pounds and 10 percent body fat, respectively.

There's no doubt though that being a command fitness leader on an out-to-sea aircraft carrier for half a year isn't for everyone. Although most ships are relatively safe from direct combat, being away from friends and family and living in a confined space for months can be tough.

The pay also deters some, Powell says. The average fitness specialist makes $30,191 a year, and the average fitness director earns $46,815 a year.

“When you work for the government, then you're tied into a pay scale, and you have to live within those means,” Powell says. “There are not the outside opportunities you'd have in a commercial setting.”

However, the job has its pluses — no sales quotas to fill and the reward of serving the country. Not to mention that with the title of fit boss comes complete freedom — Navy Fitness is open to anything as long as it's safe, legal and within industry standards, Powell says.

“We've spent a tremendous amount of money on equipment. Part of that is fitness equipment and part of that is recreation and sports,” he says. “We want any deviation sailors can take to lower their stress levels.”

Flying High

Although the Air Force isn't looking to add personnel to its MWR program, it is increasing its training through a tiered system of continuing education that includes on-the-job training and specialized courses.

“The Air Force considers its fitness mission essential for its personnel to be able to perform their job — at home or during deployment,” Ray says. “It's not just quality of life. The training a fitness professional receives is as important as the fitness equipment or state-of-the-art facilities.”

The Navy also recognizes the importance of a well-educated staff — especially in times of conflict.

“While there are a lot of physical demands on a ship, it's much more demanding when you take on a role on the ground in a very hot, stressful environment where the physical demands increase tremendously,” Powell says. “Leadership is much more attuned to what we need.”

And what the Navy needs are more qualified fitness professionals. Byrkett knows it's not a job for everyone — it's hard to be away from her daughter and son for months at a time — but it's worth it, she insists.

Running for More than Fitness

In a country at war against Taliban extremists who banned women's education, more than 900 runners and walkers in late August participated in a Women's Equality Day 5K fun run and walk at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Congress designated Women's Equality Day in the United States on Aug. 28, 1971. The date commemorates the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote.

The men and women deployed in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom see the run as more than just a fun run.

“There have been a lot of changes in Afghanistan since Taliban extremists are not in a position of authority,” says Caryn Kirkpatrick, the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing's sexual assault response coordinator.

Women can now go to school in Afghanistan, says Kirkpatrick, who also helped the Army organize the event. During some site visits, she met with Afghan women who were learning basic math.

“It's really amazing,” Kirkpatrick says. “It made me proud that the United States is over here to give other people freedoms that many take for granted.”

Afghanistan held its first election in its history in 2004. Of the 10 millions votes, 40 percent were cast by women.

“To me, this is the reason we're here — to fight for the freedoms of Afghans, especially women who you see suffering still to this day,” says Melanie Boswell, who manages forces for Combined Joint Task Force 76. “I participated because of the basic symbolism of it — equality for all women, in and outside the military. This is just one small part in trying to make a bigger difference.”

All Aboard

  • If you know of someone who is interested in working for Navy Fitness, tell them to contact the local Naval base's MWR department (for a listing of bases visit to see if positions are available.

  • For general information about working in a Navy fitness facility or installation, contact Marc Meeker, program manager of Navy Fitness, at [email protected].

  • To learn more about the Navy's afloat program, contact Sharki Stielper, civilian afloat program manager, at [email protected].

Fit Forever

Navy Fitness is also looking to de-stress its sailors' families and cultivate a healthy, fit generation of sailors for years to come. Its new family fitness program, which is in the pilot stages and includes physical activity options for families and a circuit, is doing well. Powell hopes to eventually have a full family fitness program operating at bases across the country. To run the program, more fitness professionals with an expertise in families are needed over the next three to five years, he says.

“I think it's certainly a possibility to fund the program — the case is there to make it happen,” he says. “You can't afford not to. Youth obesity and inactivity are costing us a lot of money, and we have to stop it.”

Youth are also the future of the military — and a future the Navy wants to keep healthy and in shape, especially as the Navy takes on a larger role in the global war on terrorism and helps relieve pressure put on the Army and Marine Corps, Powell says.

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