Opinion Piece: On Physical Fitness

“What’s the first thing you’re gonna do when you get out, bro?”
“Dude – I’m growing out my beard and getting a vet bod.”
“Haha. That’s sick, man!”

If you’ve spent any time around service members on their way out of the military, then you’ve heard this conversation before. Frankly, even if you have no intention of stopping your physical fitness routine or growing a beard, you’re almost obliged to say that you’re ready to get “fat and happy” as soon as your DD 214 is in your hands.

I know it’s tempting, but don’t fall into this trap. Maintain a disciplined approach to your physical fitness as you begin your new chapter in life. This is especially important for veterans who are heading to college. Let me explain myself before you write me off as an overly motivated, crazy person.

First off, I get it. Military physical training (PT) warped my view on physical fitness as much as the next guy. My passion for physical fitness began in the summer of 2007 as I geared up for my first year of high school football and it expanded over the next four years. It wasn’t just the physical aspect either – my teammates were hungry, competitive, and seeking top performance. We went at it on the track, on the field, and in the weight room. I became more self-confident as my fitness improved, and I had discovered a new and productive way to release stress and have fun. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this obsession with self-improvement and competition is probably what drove me to the Marine Corps infantry.

The infantry gave me all of the things that I loved about sports and physical fitness – an impossible mix of camaraderie and competition, daily reality checks, and equal tastes of success and failure. I remember my first PT session in the fleet like it was yesterday. We went on a “boots and utes” run and then transitioned to ground fighting. I thought to myself, “This is insane. I love it.”

But the military, especially the infantry, is a tough guy society. In addition to providing me with what I loved about high school sports, our workouts also put me on the fast track to physical and mental deterioration. You don’t need an advanced degree in exercise science to know that walking a marathon with 100lbs strapped to your body does it more harm than good. It was clear that our PT sessions were more focused on conditioning the mind than the body. Still, there’s an undeniable utility in cultivating a hardened mind through brutal training. While I became mentally tougher—a necessity for the job—I also experienced multiple forms of long-term fatigue. This clash between training my mind and my body, and often training my mind at the expense of my body, had a lasting impact on how I viewed physical fitness.

Ultimately, working out became more difficult, less enjoyable, and, simply, just another facet of work.

So, I went through my own version of the “vet bod” pursuit once I found myself in my freshman year at Penn State. My plan was to ditch the Marine Corps PT and get back to lifting weights on a schedule that wasn’t constantly interrupted by daily PT, field ops, hikes, and fitness test preparation. I was tired of training my mind by hurting my body and I planned to have nice, easy workouts. No need to sweat! I would just throw some weight around and walk home feeling accomplished. I can’t lie – it was a great change of pace. I was exercising my new freedom to cultivate my physical fitness in the way I thought was best. I enjoyed being able to take what I thought was a smarter and healthier approach to my physical well-being and the gym began to feel like the stress reliever that it was for me in high school.

Sadly, this was short-lived.

The difficulties I would face in my transition into the civilian world had been set on a delayed fuse; a landslide of struggles hit me like a sack of bricks at the end of my freshman year. My mind and body both seemed to quit on me without much warning. Maybe I was experiencing a purge of nearly a decade of stress, tension, pain, and anxiety – that much is still a mystery to me – but as quickly as working out had regained its place as my favorite mode of stress relief, it went back to being an unbearable struggle. I spent a bit of time feeling sorry for myself before I realized that my lifestyle wasn’t sustainable. I decided to put myself through a full workup at the VA.

In more or less words, one of my doctors said to me, “It’s really good that you’ve been maintaining your physical fitness. If you stop working out, your body will likely deteriorate at a quicker rate than what is common for your age.” I was shocked when she said this, and it wasn’t because she had just told me that I would have to fight off physical deterioration for the rest of my life. I had barely been working out! Is it possible that I had this doctor fooled?

I couldn’t make sense of much that was going on at the time, but my key takeaway in the summer of 2017 was that I needed to do some serious introspection. Three years later, I have a much tighter grip on reality. Here’s what I’ve learned.

First, the doctor was right. I had been working out. I just hadn’t been doing so in a way that satisfied my standards – standards that I didn’t even know I had for myself. Although I was lifting weights three to five times per week, I had only gone running maybe a handful of times in the year following my discharge from active duty. None of my workouts had reached the level of being mentally exhausting, and this was by design. Oftentimes, I would barely break a sweat. I had wrongly accepted the premise that rigorous and demanding workouts were no longer something my body was capable of. After all, I was a disabled veteran. I was wrong.

During that time, I never got the mental release that I needed from working out. I was going through the motions and performing at half capacity. Today, I regularly push myself to my mental and physical limits when I train. I’ve also unlearned my incorrect theory that pushing the mind equates to degrading the body. This change in attitude has improved my mental health and expanded my ability to engage with my intense course load at Princeton. The result is that, now, I experience the same mental benefits from my physical fitness routine as I did in high school and my early days in the Marine Corps.

Most veterans, including myself, are physically-minded people. If you’re heading to college, especially to an Ivy League, you will likely need a physical outlet to keep your mind and body in harmony. You will be pushing your academic mind harder than you ever have before; it is a grave mistake to do this while simultaneously allowing your body to atrophy. Maintaining a rigorous physical fitness program will also give you a sense of continuity as you completely uproot your life and embark on a new journey. You might think that what you need is a clean break from the military, and that’s fine, but you can do that without discarding every aspect of your past life. The transition is a journey, so plan accordingly.

Remember – the mind and body work together. As a general rule, the harder you push your mind, the harder you will need to push your body if you want to stay in tune. At Princeton, I push my mind every day. I learn new concepts; I have my dearest beliefs vigorously challenged; I consume texts and arguments to the point of oversaturation. To fully embrace the opportunity that I have to study at one of the greatest universities in the country, and to maintain my sanity, I also slay myself in the gym and on the track like my team leaders used to when I was a teenager.

We stayed in prime physical shape in the military because we never knew what obstacle we might face. This logic is no different now that we’ve transitioned into a new phase of our lives. Maybe we’re done training for “the fight,” but we should never stop training for life.