In this week’s Friday Field Notes, we will explore the resources available through cooperative extension to promote environmental fitness. Total Force Fitness (TFF), combined with human performance optimization (HPO), engages service members, their loved ones, and units while they’re healthy and performing well. The TFF framework also provides tools to prevent health and performance skills from weakening. This focus on prevention is what’s described as “left of bang.” Coordinating efforts from both left and right of bang—including taking steps to prevent injury, boost resilience, and promote recovery—are essential to sustaining Military Family health and readiness.
What Is Environmental Fitness?
Environmental fitness is defined as the ability to perform mission-specific duties in any environment and withstand the multiple stressors of deployment and war. Many theater specific environmental stressors can be identified, assessed, and mitigated before deployment. These stressors are typically categorized by their physical, chemical, or biological parameters and include heat, cold, altitude, ionizing radiation, noise, hazardous chemicals, ultrafine particulate matter, as well as biologic agents in food, water, or other media. Mitigation of these stressors can improve the environmental fitness of military members and their families. (see O’Connor et al., 2010).
These scholars point out that a concept comparable to total fitness is also emerging throughout the civilian sector wherein medical facilities are merging with fitness facilities to holistically integrate healthy behaviors and lifestyles, to include diet and exercise, as part of the overall treatment of disease. As the health-challenged civilian and military populations expand, the management and prevention of both acute and chronic health conditions have become increasingly critical. To that end, numerous efforts at the federal and state level are investing in the possibilities of what is being called Outdoor RX. Originally, Outdoor RX was focused on children where studies found support for the use of outdoor exercise prescriptions in children. In its conception, Outdoor RX was a collaboration between the Appalachian Mountain Club and the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children that paired exercise prescriptions with guided outdoor programs to increase physical activity among children (See https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27834192).
New Possibilities in the Environmental Fitness Domain
More recently, based on the work of land grant university and cooperative extension scholars and practitioners, applications of the Outdoor RX conceptualization have been applied to veterans, service members and their families. An important resource in this domain is the book “This Land is Your Land – Toward A Better Understanding Of Nature’s Resiliency-Building And Restorative Power For Armed Forces.”
A MFLN series of webinars highlighted this growing area of interest (see https://militaryfamilieslearningnetwork.org/event/28813/ ). A bill introduced to congress on May 1, 2019, could make outdoor recreation an official treatment option for veterans suffering from mental health disorders (see https://www.outsideonline.com/2394553/veterans-outdoor-therapy-could-become-law). Similar bills are being presented and passed in state legislatures.
Cooperative Extension in the Total Force Fitness
Cornell Cooperative Extension practitioner and scientist Keith Tidball was recently recognized by the Center for Jackson Hole for an award to be presented at the SHIFT (Shaping How We Invest For Tomorrow) annual festival, held each autumn in Jackson Hole, that explores issues at the intersection of outdoor recreation, conservation, and public health. Tidball has been working with outdoor recreation therapy and returning combatants as well as others dealing with trauma for over a decade, and will be working with the Center for Jackson Hole to host a symposium focused on application for Outdoor RX lessons learned from the veteran community to the currently serving military community and their families, to enhance readiness and resilience.
For more information about environmental fitness, please visit the Physical fitness section on www.hprc-online.org. You’ll find science-based resources on how to optimize performance in various environments.