When Mark Taylor was medically discharged from the military around five years ago, both his self-understanding and waistband expanded as he adjusted to life on the other side of a 12-year career with the Army and Army Reserve.
"I could do and eat what I wanted," said Taylor, a supply systems analyst at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Salt Lake City. "There was a decline in my health after active duty It was hard to take time out (of my schedule) and focus on fitness."
Taylor's experience is common among America's veterans. Whether from the stress of returning to civilian life or the shift to a less-active lifestyle that naturally occurs at the end of a military career, many former active-duty soldiers gain weight near the end of and after their service.
One recent study from the International Journal of Obesity reported that military members gain between 2.2 and 2.9 pounds per year around the time of discharge, a range nearly double the weight gain reported by men and women on active duty. This physical change complicates an already difficult transition, adding to what Taylor described as an uncomfortable estrangement from the world of the military.
But Taylor's story is not just an example of the lapse in fitness that often occurs when returning to civilian life, it is also an illustration of the benefits of applying certain aspects of military workouts to everyday life. By finding a group of veterans and others to run with a few times each week, Taylor has lost 40 pounds over the last year and is enjoying the boost in attitude and fitness level associated with group exercise.
Fitness during military service
Though he wouldn't go that far, Taylor agreed that physical health is prioritized for members of the military. Most mornings begin with group runs and physical training, or PT, is a part of both boot camp and life on active duty.
This emphasis on exercise is why, as the study on weight change following U.S. military service highlighted, members of the military are less likely to be overweight or obese than similar people not serving in the military.
While serving in the Army infantry from 1999-2002, including during a deployment to Kosovo, Taylor said he was a "PT stud," doing double the amount of push ups and sit ups expected during physical fitness tests and running 2 miles in around 14 minutes.
But when an issue with his colon forced him to switch to the U.S. Army Reserve, he gave in to the temptation to simply meet training standards, rather than exceeding them. He found it difficult to motivate himself to work out on his own.
Neil Gussman, communications director for Chemical Heritage Foundation and a sergeant in Pennsylvania's Army National Guard, said the lack of motivation Taylor described is a common response to no longer living on a military base.
"Serving in the Army is like living under a microscope," he said. "Your fitness, your credit report, your driving behavior — it can all hurt you."
Away from that microscope, military members have more freedom to choose their fitness routines and the foods they eat, a shift that often leads to weight gain.
"You realize, 'Wow! I can do whatever I want,'" Gussman said. "And, unfortunately, you do."
A shift in self-image
David Fenell, a professor of counseling and human services at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and an Army veteran, said it's part of the psychology of military service to take pride in staying in shape: "You have to prepare physically to complete whatever mission you're assigned," he said.
A loss of purpose is often part of the transition to civilian life, Fenell noted, and that can explain both loss of motivation to exercise and psychological stress more generally.
"After discharge, there truly is a big shift" in self-image, he said. It can lead to a self-defeating, depressive cycle among veterans, something Fenell, a member of the American Counseling Association, addresses in his ongoing military consulting work.
Before his diagnosis with ulcerative colitis, Taylor planned on a long military career, but he said his discharge left a "pretty bad taste" in his mouth. It took him four years to even consider getting involved in a veterans' organization.
He and other veteran friends in the Salt Lake City area eventually committed to a group called "Team Red, White & Blue," a move that Taylor credits with both his weight loss and his renewed sense of purpose. Team RWB's website explains that the group is centered on building a community around physical and social activity.
"When you're on active duty, you're part of something so patriotic and wonderful," he said. "Team RWB makes me feel like I belong to something like that again."
Over the last year, Taylor's Salt Lake Valley chapter of Team RWB has gathered two to three times each week for casual runs or to participate in nearby 5K races. The group consists of both veterans and civilians interested in being involved.
And while Taylor still hasn't returned to his "PT stud" status (he said the group runs at a slow pace in order to hold conversations), he does feel more joyful than he did in the first few years after his discharge.
"I think I walk around with my head held a little higher. I'm much more confident in myself," he said. "Having that weight loss helped out a great deal."
Although he'd never heard of Team RWB, Fenell said he wasn't surprised that Taylor improved his attitude and health by connecting with others through exercise. Veterans' groups in his area regularly organize skiing or hunting trips, and that can replicate the bond formed between members of the same military unit.
Fenell explained that his military and counseling background made him a "big believer in the power of groups" to facilitate conversations as well as to improve the physical and mental wellness of members. He said it's valuable for veterans to find groups like Team RWB during the at-times isolating experience of leaving military service behind.
"Group exercise gives participants an opportunity to talk in an unstructured, therapeutic way about the things going in their world," he said.
That's why he often suggests family workouts to both the military and non-military men and women he counsels.
"Exercise is something that brings (people) together. It gives them a common interest," he said. "It also gets the endorphins going and leads to other good things like better communication."
Research confirms this connection. A study in the February 2010 edition of "Biology Letters," (paywall), for example, reported that group exercise led to higher endorphin levels among a group of college athletes who exercised with a group rather than alone.
"Group exercise unleashes a flood of chemicals in the brain, triggering the same responses that have made collective activities from dancing and laughter to religion itself such enduring aspects of human culture," noted a Globe and Mail article on the study.
Fenell said that, for veterans, physical activity can also replace "self-defeating thoughts with more positive ones," easing a difficult adjustment to life after the military.
And while some might enjoy replicating the "training for a mission" mindset described by Gussman, perhaps by signing up for a marathon or other race, Taylor said his enthusiasm for Team RWB actually derives from the simple pleasure of working out in a group again. It's an experience he didn't realize he was missing after his discharge.
"When I left the military, I thought I was done running," he said, remembering what a relief it was to no longer have to wake up early for mandatory exercise. "But now, I've realized how much joy (running) brings to my life," even when it's a casual jog before work with a few fellow veterans.
"I no longer care about my times," Taylor said. "I just want to be a part of it."
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