On Thursday, the New York Times reported on the U.S. Army’s new FM 7-22 Holistic Health and Fitness manual, a top-to-bottom revamp of the Army’s physical fitness training manual. The headline prompted some pretty entertaining responses on social media, with many making quips about Soldiers asleep on the job. To be fair, a headline like this sort of begs for jokes…
It would be dishonest for me, a Marine veteran, to say that I didn’t snort a bit when the story caught my attention. After all, the sibling rivalry between service branches is perhaps at its hottest among Marines and Soldiers. While I may embrace the humor in jokes about Marines eating crayons, that doesn’t mean I haven’t cracked a few jokes at the Army’s expense myself over the years. All in fun as it may be, sometimes the service-stereotypes we lean our humor on can be misconstrued by our civilian counterparts as genuine malice — So it seemed prudent to take a look at the changes in the Army’s new fitness manual with a bit more sincerity.
This new manual doesn’t just focus on the benefit of napping; it goes on to outline how to leverage other (sometimes scoffed at) approaches to a person’s overall well being. It has sections that outline concepts like meditation, the interconnectedness of all things and all people, and prayer. Between that, and the Army’s use of the phrase “holistic fitness,” some have been eager to dismiss these guidelines as “new age” mumbo jumbo, but the truth is, both scientific data and my own anecdotal experience with service members in the field, support such a transition in our approach to health.
It will come as no surprise to most that one of the things service members pride themselves in is toughness. We exchange stories of hardship and woe, not because we seek sympathy, but rather as a part of an ongoing competition to see who brings the most grit to the table. In some respects, this can be a significant source of strength — as our difficult experiences together help to develop a sense of camaraderie within the ranks. Further, overcoming hardship grants each service member an essential bit of context for when the going gets tough in the fight: “I know I can do this. I’ve been through worse.”
But our love affair with hardship comes with negative side effects as well. Over time, it can lead to a culture that prizes toughness over sound strategy. Sleep deprivation is something all Marine recruits experience as they navigate the Crucible during recruit training, for instance. But that experience isn’t meant to serve as an example to emulate in combat, it’s supposed to provide each new recruit with an introduction to their limits. In order to function in terrible circumstances, having experience in that domain can help… but that’s no reason to seek terrible circumstances when they can be avoided.
That important distinction was echoed by Lt. Gen. David Barno, who served as the commander of combined forces in Afghanistan in the early 2000s.
“The Army has always had an internal dynamic that real men don’t need sleep and can just push on, and it’s incredibly stupid,” he said.
“Combat is a thinking man’s business and your brain doesn’t function without sleep.”
There’s no denying that combat operations are mentally and physically exhausting, and there are times when the mission doesn’t permit much in the way of rest. The Army’s new fitness manual, seemingly acknowledging this reality of war, suggests taking advantage of opportunities to nap whenever they arise, helping to ensure you’re not walking into the next difficult set of circumstances while still smarting from a self-permitted sleep deficit.
“Soldiers can use short, infrequent naps to restore wakefulness and promote performance. When routinely available sleep time is difficult to predict, soldiers might take the longest nap possible as frequently as time is available.”-U.S. Army’s FM 7-22 Holistic Health and Fitness manual
As for the apparent quackery on display by encouraging meditation… There’s legitimate science to back these new inclusions up as well. It’s important to note that the jury is still out about the effect meditation may have on physiological issues like blood pressure and pain, but there is evidence to suggest that it has moderate or better results as a means of managing anxiety or depression — two prevalent issues for deployed service members (as well as many in garrison).
“A 2012 review of 36 trials found that 25 of them reported better outcomes for symptoms of anxiety in the meditation groups compared to control groups.”-National Center for Complementary and Integrated Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
I personally know a number of special operations, intelligence, and other service members who all highly recommend meditation as a part of maintaining a healthy physical and mental approach to tasks at hand, but to be clear, experiences may vary.
Meditation may indeed be helpful, but even if it isn’t, the nature of the practice suggests that it likely won’t hurt, and importantly for those in the field, requires little in the way of facilities or equipment.
“Meditation is the practice of contemplation and reflection by an individual or group. Meditation has similar requirements to prayer in terms of space and material. However, meditation generally requires a greater removal of external distractions. For this reason, a dedicated space away from ongoing training or operations is preferable to facilitate an individual’s ability to practice this spiritual readiness activity.”-U.S. Army’s FM 7-22 Holistic Health and Fitness manual
The Army has actually done its own studies into the benefit of meditation, confirming not only that it can be a benefit, but that some forms of meditation have a more quantifiably beneficial effect than others (yoga, for instance, had a more significant effect than Chi meditation on stress levels during their study).
“They also found that the long-term practice of meditation has the effect of making permanent the meditation-induced physiologic changes. Moreover, they found that meditators show a stronger executive control, that is, the ability to carry out goal-oriented behavior, using complex mental processes and cognitive abilities.”-Research Laboratory Public Affairs in a piece about their findings.
So while terms like “meditation” and “holistic fitness” may rub some of us old-timers the wrong way, the truth can be found in one of those well worn sayings we old-timers tended to cling during our own operational days: If it works, it’s not stupid.