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Army’s basic fitness program getting a healthy makeover

New recruits will see changes in training, diet

By Alan Scher Zagier
Associated Press / December 2, 2010

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FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. — New soldiers expecting Army drill sergeants to bust their chops over poor posture or a wayward gaze may instead want to avoid a more modern military transgression: relying on fast food for sustenance.

The US Army plans to get new recruits into better shape with a revamped approach to health, fitness, and diet at basic training.

The most visible changes will be in mess halls, where milk and juice dispensers will replace soda fountains and whole grains will be substituted for white bread and pasta.

Army leaders unveiled the new approach yesterday at Missouri’s Fort Leonard Wood. It’s the first substantial change to basic fitness training in the Army in decades.

“We are seeing many soldiers entering our profession who need phased conditioning methods and improved nutritional habits,’’ said Lieutenant General Mark Hertling, of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command.

“This is not [just] an Army problem,’’ he said. “This is a civilian problem that we’re receiving, and fixing.’’

The “soldier athlete’’ initiative is designed to prepare new recruits with training methods similar to those offered to elite athletes preparing for competition — including greater use of athletic trainers, physical therapists, and strength and conditioning coaches.

That means more attention on injury prevention, flexibility and mobility, coordination, aerobic endurance, and healthy eating. Drill sergeants will include one-hour sessions on performance nutrition in addition to their traditional responsibilities. And outdated exercises such as bayonet drills are being replaced with core strength workouts more commonly found in the aerobics studio than on the battlefield.

The changes were on display yesterday at the 787th Military Police Battalion’s dining hall, where color-coded food labels differentiated high-nutrient, protein-laden breakfast items from calorie-filled, energy-sapping choices.

Sugary cereals and biscuits topped with sausage gravy were among the choices. But so were scoops of sunflower seeds, cottage cheese, salsa, yogurt, and granola bars.

As troops passed, drill sergeants kept close watch on their demeanor and comportment. They also didn’t hesitate to call out soldiers who didn’t include enough fruit on their plates, or who opted for two cups of coffee but didn’t include a glass of water to remain hydrated.

“We’ve changed from feeding soldiers to fueling the tactical athlete,’’ said Hertling, a former college athlete who continues to compete in triathlons.

Staff Sergeant Travis Bammer said he begins to notice a difference in troop’s physical performance and mental acuity after roughly five weeks under the improved nutritional regimen.

Hertling and other officials emphasized the need to decisively respond to civilian trends in diet and health brought into the military by new troops.

More than 60 percent require immediate dental care before they can enter combat. Female recruits report high levels of iron deficiency.

And approximately 25 percent of soldiers entering basic training come with little or no organized physical training.

The Army is gradually rolling out the new program at its five training installations — Fort Leonard Wood; Fort Sill, Okla.; Fort Benning, Ga.; Fort Jackson, S.C.; and Fort Knox, Ky. The menu changes should be in place by February.

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