Throughout my career and since leaving the military, the fitter I was, the less I had to focus on the physical strain and fatigue of what I was doing; the more I could maintain my focus on my emotional and mental skills. In a practical example, the fitter and stronger I was in carrying and moving quickly in all of my heavy combat gear, the more I could focus on leading and communicating with my soldiers, while planning and actioning tactics to gain the advantage over an enemy or in a life threatening situation. The feedback on my fitness levels was extremely apparent. If I was huffing and puffing then I could’t clearly send critical radio orders or maintain the required tactical awareness to effectively lead my team and achieve the mission to the best possible standard.
This was the literal translation of the fitness requirements, that ensured fitness was always a daily priority. In doing so, my mental and emotional health were readily advantaged by the simple fact that I lead a physically healthy life that directly enabled elevated success in my professional performance, while providing more capacity to develop and improve my professional skills and mental capacity. The personal gains were the elevated emotions and mental clarity I gained from the chemical, mood enhancing side effects of effective exercise and from my body performing at an optimal level.
Fast forward to leaving the military, where unless you are a personal trainer, fitness then easily becomes a priority for motivational needs that are much more personal, social, competitive or essentially as an enjoyable hobby. It has been in the transition to such that I have personally experienced lower levels of fitness, accompanied by higher levels of emotional and mental fatigue and issues. Putting the comparison between the two, I at first found myself utterly confused; how I could go from actually daily life-and-death situations and decisions, without any mental health issues or concerns, to scenarios where I simply need to make sure that I look left and right before crossing the road while walking my dog, yet feel weaker in my mental and emotional resilience?
There are many other factors that go into the considerations surrounding these comparisons. However, I have easily found that dedicating more effort into my physical fitness has yielded the fastest immediate improvements in my emotional and mental health.
Where I have often found the struggle to do so, stems from essentially the motivation - the WHY behind the need. For most it is simply apparent that living a healthy lifestyle should be the focus and fuel the commitment. However, for many like myself who were required to achieve elite standards, for a specific purpose, you find yourself having to generate a new purpose at a time in your life that is probably not the easiest to learn a new thing. The perpetuation of this leads to not only a loss in purpose for fitness, but then the lack of accomplishment in comparison to previous standards and high personal expectations.
Now appreciating this sliding scale of return, I reflect back on how calm, clear and dedicated I was in my military fitness regime. A regime that wasn’t personal trainers and group fitness, but personal hours in the gym, under the heave beam, in the pool or running around with heavy things around the roads on base. You couldn’t pay me to do that, but if I was doing that now I would be fitter and happier - or at least not concerned with my fitness, removing that element of anxiety from my daily consciousness. Being special forces fit allowed me to take all the strain off my emotional and mental health relating to fitness, maintaining that capacity to apply towards whatever external unknowns or uncertainty I might face.
This isn’t an easy process, and what you need to do is accept that you need to find your motivation, whatever that is, and start achieving small steps along the path that will grow and strengthen this. I often have to look external, to extrinsic motivators; fitness personalities on social media that offer simple yet effective exercises. I make my selection, or take bits from each to put together in my own routine, and then set the task to do it. I put the time and alert in my calendar, turn the music up loud (or put my earphones in) get dressed into my workout gear and look in the mirror. The whole time I am visualising what workout I’m going to do, or watch the person doing it on my phone. I’m setting myself the expectation that it’s going to be uncomfortable but I need it and if it’s not, then I’m not working hard enough.
The funny part is… this is exactly the way we used to prepare to go on missions in Afghanistan and other situations. I’d lay out my tactical gear, put on music to give me a rhythm to work and move to, and look at myself in the mirror putting on my camouflage cream or checking over my equipment to make sure everything was where it needed to be, pouches done up and nothing hanging out that would make me a liability or cause injury to someone else in my team. If it worked going into combat, then it can definitely work going into a workout, and it does.
Setting my mindset is what sets the conditions for my physical performance. These days there's no longer the chaos “outside the wire” to distract and threaten me. Too easily this chaos comes from within my own head and heart, and it’s through applying such simple steps, through muscle memory and routine, that I am able to focus and find my motivation. The mission is now my own to complete or fail, and there are still those days when the motivation wanes that little further and I find myself still looking for excuses. This is where I need to draw into those around me to help hold me accountable and responsible to my commitment. We all know the motivational power of group fitness, so FaceTiming a friend, have a digital workout buddy... or 10. I never went outside the wire on a mission alone, and it is alone where we struggle the most, so harness the motivational power of others, and make it your mission to succeed together.