wellness

Ready and Able: How Military Training Has Helped Me Be Up to Any Task

Dr. Allison Brager
Dr. Allison Brager
| Stay Updated

In the military, readiness is the number one priority, period. Readiness in a nutshell is being physically and mentally ready at a moment’s notice to fight and win our nation’s wars. Readiness is not only a lifestyle commitment but when not taken seriously, the number one reason why the military cannot deploy.Fortunately, the principles and practices of the wellness coaching platforms available through the National Academy of Sports Medicine can help anyone in the military stay ready. Military training and the military lifestyle are very unique entities. Below, we focus on each of the primary pillars of the wellness coaching platform and apply them to how the military can optimize and enhance their readiness for any situation in life inside and outside the military.

The military lifestyle is unique in that it is often centered around very early mornings for physical activity and long evenings at work working on highly mentally engaging tasks involving high-risk decision-making and complex planning. This lifestyle can make not getting adequate sleep a challenge.

This lifestyle also makes it easier to fuel with nutrient-deficient snacks and energy drinks - most of which are neurotoxic (damaging to brain health) - rather than eating nutrient-dense greens and grains and using natural sources of caffeine such as green tea and coffee.

Below are several strategies that military personnel can employ to preserve and protect their physical and mental wellness.

Did you know that all military get a special discount through NASM? Check it out by following the link! 

Physical Training: More is Not Better

It is endemic in the military to want to do more, always. The culture weeds out laziness but sometimes, can misconstrue and misperceive implemented active recovery days as a form of laziness.

This is why it is so important for military leaders to have a basic understanding of the principles and practices of strength and conditioning programs. Even elite athletes of all athletic domains - endurance and power athletes - train no more than five times a week. Further, the daily training of elite athletes is intentional and purposeful meaning that there is a specific focus on the quality of movement rather than just making everything and every day a competition.

The concept of competing daily let alone before the sun even rises can trigger a stress response even when not training. This will ultimately decrease recovery time. In general, opt for a training schedule like the professionals: 2 -3 days of quality training separated by 1 day of full rest or mobility work.

Try To Avoid the Unhealthy Snacks!

If you walk into any convenience store on a military base, you are likely to see one aisle with all the healthy snacks but then two aisles fully devoted to beef jerky, at least two refrigerated sections stocked with energy drinks, and at least two shelves stockpiled with dip behind the checkout counter.

Deployed or not deployed these have to be the highest selling items on any military installation. While convenient during deployment (been there done that), all of these are nutrient deficient, neurotoxic, and in the case of dip, increases risks for cancer. Military installations are doing better with providing healthy snack options that are presented upon walking in rather than tucked away in the back corner of the store, but it is not perfect.

Therefore, military personnel must intentionally meal plan daily and weekly. One recommendation is to eat at one of the many dining facilities over one of the many fast-food chains for lunch. I also subscribe to a healthy snack delivery service that a friend and Navy veteran owns. Every month, I spend $40 to get about $60 worth of very healthy and nutrient-dense snacks to keep me fueled with long working days or if I am forced to skip lunch. And it goes without saying, stay away from the dip.

Drink Water, Often

Military days are long and draining. We exhaust our muscles every morning but then completely deplete our cognitive muscle - the brain - for six times longer a day than we do our actual muscles. The brain much like skeletal muscle thrives on energy reserves like glucose and fats and water.

One of the primary diagnoses of dehydration is an immediate decline in cognitive function. Therefore, drink water often. Most installations have water sources that allow you to fill up a water bottle but it also only costs $1.50 to buy a jug of water.

Learn about the importance of hydration here!

Work Smarter, Not Harder

One common misperception about the military is that if you aren’t working at least eight to nine hours daily, then you aren’t deserving to wear the uniform. But in reality, the brain cannot efficiently and effectively attend to and evaluate the information for that long. Therefore, breaks are necessary.

Research has shown that five minutes of intentional daydreaming or mindfulness (which can easily be achieved by staring into the unknown outside your window or building) can help optimize productivity during long workdays.

Because many government buildings are deficient in quality light, it is recommended to venture outside at least once an hour. Tactical napping during the workday for no longer than twenty minutes is effective too. If you don’t think you can nap at work. You are wrong and your leaders are wrong.

Recently, we have challenged the stigma of napping in the workplace and published a piece about it in the flagship journal of sleep research (Alger et al. 2019). Napping will not only immediately boost productivity but will also help repay sleep debt.

Read also: Signs of Overtraining

Sleep is More Important than Streaming

After a long working day, it’s common for the military to come home, eat dinner, and mind dump with online streaming. Don’t get me wrong, relaxation is critical to longevity, but sleep is the best form of relaxation and recovery. We have done studies to show that compromising sleep by as little as 30% can result in a 50% decrease in combat effectiveness.

The average human requires between 7 -9 hours of sleep nightly and military personnel are not exempt from this average. It’s not true that “sleep is for the weak” as is commonplace in military culture. The father of sleep medicine - the late Dr. William C. Dement of Stanford University - famously used to say “sleepiness makes you stupid.” It’s true.

So, replace streaming with more sleep and the minimum invest in a nightly sleep routine (which should not involve streaming because blue light disrupts the nighttime release of melatonin, the hormone of sleep consolidation) that is relaxing and calming and performed under dim light.

Check out these tips for how to sleep properly!

Tips During Deployment

Most of the strategies I listed apply to the home front. But, all is not lost while deployed. Trust me. Here are some tactics for maximizing wellness when it matters the most.

1. Seven minutes of burpees or push-ups goes a long way (Physical). Sometimes, there are no gyms nearby. But, all is not lost. Have you ever tried doing seven minutes of max repetition burpees for time?

2. Use the nearly 24 hour dining facility for all it’s worth and don’t be afraid to take some additional fruits back with you to the operations center.

3. Sunlight in deployed areas is high quality and unforgettable. I remember this more than anything. Try to get out of the dark operations center every 45 minutes or so. It’s worth it.

4. Invest in a CamelBak and refill it often.

5. Invest in a sleep mask and some noise-canceling headphones. Noise and light are the largest disruptors of sleep while deployed. I still curse my deployment when we were housed next to the flight line. Don’t suffer as I did. Invest in both. This $100 investment is worth it.

6. Practice gratitude and embrace the community. The camaraderie developed during deployment is the best. It also can help one’s mental well-being. Take advantage of the diversity and many community activities and competitions offered.

It is evident that military personnel have unique needs. But, the wellness coaching platform of NASM is here to support all of them so that the military can be ready and stay ready whenever and often.

The Author

Dr. Allison Brager

Dr. Allison Brager

Dr. Brager is a subject matter expert in behavioral genetics, sleep, and biological rhythms research. She is passionate about discovering new factors that promote resiliency in extreme environments. She also serves on the NCAA task force for mental health and sleep, contributing to the first edition of the NCAA student-athlete mental health handbook. She is author of Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain, which debunks the myth of the 'dumb jock' and serves as a performance manual for functional athletes. Outside of the laboratory, Allison was a two-time CrossFit Games (team) athlete, a two-time CrossFit Regionals (individual) athlete, and a four-year varsity NCAA Division I athlete in track and field. Dr. Brager has an Sc.B. in Psychology from Brown University and a Ph.D. in Physiology from Kent State University.