How Military Members Should Deal With Fitness and Health as They Age

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Service members, family and friends take part in a MWR Veterans Day run or walk.
Service members, family and friends take part in a MWR Veterans Day run or walk. (U.S. Navy/Mark El-Rayes)

Your military service may be the fittest time of your life, but it's no secret that after years in a physically demanding job, the aches and pains of athletic life before the military and injuries during the military can start to add up. For some, those aches and pains may hit in the late 20s and early 30s. Others might not experience the typical pains of a life well lived until their 40s and 50s.

No matter when the wear and tear of military service catches up with you, there are countless ways to turn this process around. The common denominator is: don't stop moving.

Several veterans ranging in VA disability ratings from 50 to 100% I spoke with recently said staying active and working hard to not gain weight are both key to reducing the effect of old injuries. How we got to this point follows a somewhat standard path - and now what it looks like might help you mitigate it for yourself.

Teen Years. Many worked hard to gain weight, put on muscle for sports, and could not eat enough food to gain weight. Many athletes or fitness buffs in their teens learn how to eat to gain weight, while others work to drop it quickly for sports like wrestling. Depending on where you were on that spectrum, you likely took those good and bad eating habits into your 20 to 30s.

Late Teens and Early 20s. As we finished growing, many learned that they were no longer a "hard gainer" and could put on both muscle and fat with relative ease. Many put on weight without even trying. And while some were able to outwork their diets, for many that subtle gain of five pounds a year turned into 50 lbs. overweight by the end of the decade. Meanwhile, depending on military job, aches and pains from running, rucking, equipment carry and other high repetition exercises started to show themselves.

Twenties into 30s. Now we're at the decade where many started to experience job related injuries and surgeries layered on the stresses of the job, life, family and deployments. Add in combat deployments and traumatic injuries and you have an entirely new level of recovery to deal with when you come back home. That is also when the previous injuries from early life athletics, job related tasks and injuries or stress, combined with eating habits of previous decades, add to the loss of the ability to recover quickly from training, injuries and illnesses. Outworking a bad diet suddenly was near impossible.

Thirties into 40s -- Many have either made the decision to leave the military by now or decided to put in 20-plus years. Regardless of your decision to continue serving or not, you cannot escape the age and athletic history. Learning new skills and following new rules at this point is absolutely required to live normally. Some of these new rules are:

  • You cannot outwork your diet. You need to eat better and usually smaller portions than previous decades.
  • Focus on de-stressing activities -- relax and breathe.
  • Add mobility and flexibility training to your day.
  • Actively pursue recovery (eat, sleep, de-stress, physical training) balance all in your life.
  • Work to reduce weight if overweight. It just gets harder to lose in the next decades.
  • Consider running every other day, but add in non-impact cardio activities on days in between.
  • Get annual check-ups and medical screenings.

Forties into 50s and Beyond -- As you age, the list above still applies. You may find the more non-impact activity you do the better your joints will feel. Though running is not out your list of options, the heavier you are the less you will enjoy it. Try bike, swim, rowing, paddle boarding, elliptical, skating to burn the calories and get cardio activity especially for weight loss.

But you should also still do some form of resistance training either in the weight room or in the form of calisthenics, Pilates, or yoga-based training. Personally, a mix of all the above is a fun way to enjoy variety in your training. Cycle through the year and try to get outside to enjoy nature in all the seasons especially if you have winter exercise options like cross-country skiing. Though there is nothing wrong with staying inside in the winter months and changing your routine to more resistance exercise, stretching, and non-impact cardio options.

Regardless of your age, learning to work smarter and not harder will help you delay or avoid the types of overuse injuries as we age that occur with tough military training or even hobbies like adventure racing, ultra-marathon and other events.

You can also rebuild your body and recover from previous nagging injuries (depending on the injury). Working hard to develop recovery skills is critical every year we are on this earth. The sooner you can start the recommended activities above (30-50-plus groups) the better.

That does not mean you have to stop what you are doing, especially if your job requires higher levels of physical effort. But it does mean you can be smarter and take a few easy days and work on mobility each week. Eat better, sleep better, and work to find ways to relax better without self-medicating to wind down or speed up.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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