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It’s Time for a Fitness Transformation

by Lieutenant-Colonel Michael J. Goodspeed

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It may seem an absurdly self-evident question, but shouldn’t every member of the Canadian Forces (CF) be in excellent physical condition and robust good health? Do taxpaying Canadians not have the right to expect that, except for those recovering from sickness, wounds or injuries, every single service person in their nation’s military has a fundamental professional duty to keep in top physical shape?

As a minimum, all members of the military have a professional duty to keep fit enough to be deployed on operations on short notice. This overriding obligation to take on hazardous and stressful duties when called upon is a defining feature of the profession of arms. In our Profession of Arms Manual, we have enshrined “duty” as the most important characteristic of service in the Forces. It is the principal factor that separates the soldier, the sailor and the airman from his or her fellow Canadians. In practical terms, this means that regardless of peacetime function, to fulfil one’s duty, as a minimum, everyone in uniform must be sufficiently able-bodied to work for prolonged periods under intense physical and mental strain. They must also be capable of performing exhausting small unit and self-defence activities that will be imposed upon them in addition to their regular tasks, and they must be able to rescue a wounded comrade under adverse conditions. All this absolutely demands vigorous good health and rigorous standards of aerobic and anaerobic conditioning.

Unfortunately, physical conditioning falls along a spectrum in the Canadian Forces. The majority of CF members are in good physical condition and present a creditable appearance in their uniforms. Nonetheless, there is a visible and growing minority who have allowed themselves to become noticeably overweight. A subset of this group is in such poor physical condition that, in an operational theatre, these people would be a liability to their comrades, and, in public, they have become an embarrassment to an enormously hard-working and deserving institution.

The CF fitness and obesity problem is almost certainly part of a larger epidemic spreading across Canadian society, and, mirroring that larger society, obesity now looms as our major preventable health problem. But we should not find consolation in this explanation. In the CF, where one would expect to see a uniformly high standard of physical conditioning, the problem is so self-evident that it needs no sophisticated measurement to prove its existence. In the Forces, obesity cuts across genders; it is seen in every trade and Military Occupation Classification (MOC); it is found in the regular and reserve components; and it is evident at all rank levels. Apart from the very real immediate operational dangers it poses to CF members, the obesity epidemic is inflicting serious long-term damage on the Forces because it damages our organizational culture by undermining our ethos. It is causing morale problems, and, at the same time, it erodes public confidence in the CF.

There are numerous factors that lie behind the problem. But the single largest contributory factor has been binding judicial pronouncements that have effectively disallowed legally enforceable fitness standards. Concerns and uncertainties surrounding the legality of an enforceable fitness and appearance standard have, for many, eliminated the incentive to keep fit and have rendered physical fitness testing irrelevant. In the decade since the rejection of the Body Mass Index (BMI) measurement, fitness and appearance standards collapsed and our fitness problems increased dramatically. This situation is untenable.

Unfortunately, there is much more to solving this problem than its simple legal dimension. The situation has been compounded in part because we have tolerated a permissive fitness environment for so long that, even if we had an immediately enforceable standard and we released all those who are chronically unfit, we would create far more problems than we would solve. Obesity and poor fitness are so widespread that were we to release on medical or administrative grounds all those who are unfit, we would lose such large numbers of highly skilled and, equally importantly, valued members, that we would create serious morale problems as well as compound our already difficult manning situation. Solving the problem requires deft leadership and imagination.

The fitness problem is first and foremost a leadership issue. And, in this regard, we have been collectively remiss in making fitness a CF-wide priority. Unquestionably, the Forces leadership – and our government – must press unremittingly for a new, sensible, legal determination that acknowledges and supports this fundamental military requirement. But even without an enforceable fitness standard, we still possess the wherewithal to manage the problem far more effectively than we have to date. We already have the means to engineer a genuine cultural transformation in which rigorous levels of fitness become a central feature across the CF. In creating this new culture, our approach should be scrupulously fair-minded, enthusiastic, supportive, and above all else, determined.

Engineering a Fitness Transformation entails three crucial elements. As an absolute pre-condition, every level of the chain of command has to make fitness a serious and measured priority. Secondly, the program has to be supported by a carefully devised, far-reaching and continuous communications plan. And thirdly, fitness transformation requires a deliberate and imaginative program of institutional change designed to make attaining a high level of fitness easier for our membership.

As in any undertaking, the most crucial element of Fitness Transformation will be its leadership component. Officially, we must implant the expectation that maintaining an exemplary personal level of fitness and the inculcation of fitness in a leader’s command are essential, unshirkable, and common obligations of leadership. Consequently, both the personal and collective aspects of fitness responsibility should be specifically measured and commented upon in all leaders’ annual fitness reports. Notwithstanding this, there are some leaders who believe there is no time available for fitness programs and that it will be impossible to manage schedules so that subordinates can exercise three or four times per week. For those who experience serious difficulties with this aspect of the program, we should freely provide specialized time management training and coaching by those officers and NCOs who have successfully overcome the problem. In the final analysis, in the CF, we must uncompromisingly adopt the attitude that “fitness is a leadership issue and leadership is by example.”

A Fitness Transformation program in the Forces needs a first-class communications plan. Several kinds of targeted messages must inform and motivate members on the interdependent issues of diet and exercise. All members of the CF must have ready access to the dietary information needed to get themselves down to their optimum weight levels, and then they must be well informed as to the sorts of exercise options available to become physically tough enough to meet the demands of operational deployments. Given the reality of CF demographics, to be effective, dietary messages will have to be targeted at service families.

Losing weight is a wrenching and difficult process, and so the tone of all communications must be sympathetic and understanding – but if we are to overcome the formidable institutional and individual problems that confront us, they must also be decisive and resolute. In this light, Fitness Transformation communications must also help to maintain and develop the momentum of the program. And, given this, the communications plan will probably run at an intense level for at least three years. Fitness Transformation communications will have to be carefully developed, and this will entail considerable effort. Customized messages to highly differentiated audiences will require a range of media, including posters, videos, seminars, support groups, motivational talks and, most importantly, individual counselling. Much of this can, and should, be implemented by the chain of command.

The third element of a Fitness Transformation plan should be creation of an “Easy to Be Fit Program.” This is a new problem we are facing and it will require new measures. In this respect, we have to make it easier for people to exercise and to adopt healthier lifestyles. This should entail a wide variety of innovations, such as changing our uniforms and clothing. This can be a gradual and incremental process, but it should be carefully planned. One example could be issuing more suitable walking shoes, so that CF members can walk to and from work, or on their lunch hour. We should eliminate self-serve buffet lines in our mess halls, as well as identifying the calorie, carbohydrate and fat count on each item on our menus. We should install showers, and designate exercise and stretch areas in every workplace. CF member-led martial arts, yoga, weight training, callisthenics, Pilates, step and cardiovascular classes should become commonplace in every office, hanger, workshop or drill hall. We should have lunch hour basketball, floor hockey and volleyball leagues. Well supported unit, base and formation sponsored runs, triathlons, cross-country ski, rollerblade, swimming and cycle events should become standard features of CF life. In short, we should adopt imaginative and innovative measures that make it simple, easy and attractive for fitness to become a high priority and an integral, everyday part of our lifestyle.

Our long-term goal must never be confused with the pursuit of a frivolous and superficial cosmetic ideal. In addition to all the operational reasons cited, we have a responsibility to develop the physical and psychological health of every member. The nature of our job demands that we build character and cultivate a strong sense of pride and confidence in each individual and in the organization. We know with absolute certainty that the lives of our soldiers, sailors and airmen will depend upon the physical and mental capabilities that we instil in our troops. And so, in a very real sense, we have a moral responsibility to bring about a Fitness Transformation in the Canadian Forces. Now, partly for reasons beyond our control, and partly as a result of some of our own short-sighted decisions, we find ourselves in a deep hole. It’s time to start digging ourselves out of that hole.

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Lieutenant-Colonel Goodspeed, an infantry officer (PPCLI), is currently Senior Staff Officer, Officer Professional Development, at the Canadian Defence Academy in Kingston.