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Fitness as a lifestyle—can I get there?

Official photo of Chief Master Sgt. Joseph E. Thornell Sr., Air Forces Northern Command Chief.  (Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

Official photo of Chief Master Sgt. Joseph E. Thornell Sr., Air Forces Northern Command Chief. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Are you hoping to be promoted soon? Are you looking at being a candidate for in-residence professional military education? Are you embracing fitness or doing everything possible to avoid it? Your answer to the last question can significantly affect the answers to the first two. Let me explain.

Fitness has been a part of my life since I was in the 9th grade. I was a freshman in a new high school of more than 1,500 students, and I was not overly connected to the student body. I wanted to belong to a team and also see if I had any personal skill at this sport called Cross Country. My coach was a man named Ray Vanyo and he reinforced my efforts to participate and improve (honestly, I stunk as a runner) at every meet and practice. I can still hear him hollering across the course, "Is that all you've got, Thornell?"

It was not until my junior year that I saw how my individual performance can affect the rest of the team when we finished in the medals in the junior varsity competition. Then it clicked -- my individual efforts benefitted the entire five-man team and ultimately the high school we represented. I have continued to run ever since as a way to reduce my personal stress and also a way to keep some degree of personal physical competition alive within me by participating in 5K and 10K runs.

Today, we find ourselves as Airmen being asked to engage our personal fitness to benefit the overall Air Force team. We are asked to make fitness a lifestyle choice. Our leadership tells us and shows us how it will benefit our personal health, improve our ability to serve as a combat Airman/leader, and assist our nation with the sky-rocketing cost of military healthcare. Some are engaging it with enthusiasm, some are engaging it half-hearted, and sadly some have not engaged it at all. As I learned so many years ago on that cross country course in southern California, our individual efforts with fitness can benefit the entire team.

July 1, 2010 was a watershed day in our Air Force as we began using the new fitness program standards and the Fitness Assessment Cell to measure and record our assessment results. Fitness is not new in our Air Force; we have been pushing this lifestyle change and improved ability message for more than seven years. In some circles, it seems like Airmen believe we just started this July 1.

What has changed is that accountability to perform is now being monitored by a third-party -- FAC personnel -- and reported as an official score. Our Air Force has followed through with using those scores to reflect if we as Airmen are performing as required by Air Force instruction asking, "Is our personal performance benefitting the Air Force team?"

That reflection is shown through performance reports, ability to attend in-residence professional military education programs, recommendations for awards/decorations, and will ultimately factor into an Airman's ability to serve for an extended period of time in our Air Force. Bottom line: a positive fitness lifestyle is required to be a part of this great Air Force team.

I have watched our team members in 1st Air Force embrace this program and have seen all three types of Airmen (enthusiasm, half-hearted, and not engaged) perform. The largest group has embraced it with enthusiasm and their scores (above 80 percent) clearly indicate fitness is in their lifestyle. We have seen more than 70 percent of those testing improve their score markedly from their last assessment and we have witnessed many scoring 90 percent or higher. Unfortunately, we have also seen those who are not engaged go the opposite direction; thankfully they are the smaller percentage. Across our Air Force, it continues to amaze me which group we hear more about and which group we hear more from!

Fitness is here to stay and our inclusion of it as part of our lifestyle benefits us and also our Air Force team. Once an Airman gets the fitness message into their head and the fire for it into their heart, it simply becomes a part of life and the internal stress associated with not complying or meeting Air Force instructions and standards vanishes. The result is an Airman who is focused on serving and leading well and our team goes forward with pride.

I learned it and put it into my lifestyle 37+ years ago...it has made my personal life and my extended participation on this great Air Force team an awesome experience. Is it part of your lifestyle? If not, can you get there for yourself, our Air Force team and ultimately our nation? I encourage you to get after it and make it happen!