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From failures to fitness, exercise physiology program helps Airmen excel

  • Published
  • By Eric M. White
  • 910th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Not long ago, Senior Airman Garri Johnson, commander support staff for the 910th Mission Support Group here, failed three Air Force fitness assessments. Failing a fourth fitness test would have put her in danger of being discharged from the Air Force Reserve. Instead, she scored a 93 on her next assessment, considered excellent by Air Force standards. Johnson’s fitness journey changed when her squadron and group leadership introduced her to the 910th Airlift Wing’s exercise physiology program.

Matthew Gruse is the exercise physiologist for the 910th AW. He works with the wing’s Reserve Citizen Airmen to assess individual fitness levels, work through limiting factors, pursue individualized fitness plans and, ultimately, excel at the Air Force fitness test.

Gruse’s career with the military began in 1992 when he joined the infantry of the U.S. Army. He joined the Air National Guard in 2008 and got his Bachelor of Science in exercise science. He was serving in the guard as a cardio pulmonary laboratory specialist, gaining exposure to many of the cardio and respiratory issues that contribute to or detract from fitness. While in this role, he learned the Air Force Reserve was adding exercise physiologist positions and jumped at the opportunity. He was the first to fill such a role in the Air Force Reserve when he was hired here in 2011.

When a Reserve Citizen Airman comes to Gruse following two or three fit-to-fight failures, his first step is to conduct assessments to establish a fitness baseline. These include height, weight and abdominal circumference measurements, push-ups following a metronome rhythm, sit-ups without a toe-bar to establish core strength and overhead squats. The exercises are simple, but a trained eye observing movement mechanics helps identify trouble areas.

“We can figure out, bio-mechanically, the deficiencies they have,” said Gruse of the assessment exercises. “If you want to set somebody up with a run program, you have to get down to the nitty gritty, because you can predict injuries.”

For example, Gruse says if a person’s arms fall forward during the overhead squat, he can predict that the Airman has tight lats, the large back muscles that stretch to the sides, and is probably a little weaker in the core. Addressing those deficiencies can help improve overall fitness.

“The important part is when you start running and you don’t account for all these little deficiencies you have,” said Gruse. “They can compound.”

Once baseline assessments are complete, Gruse can point Airmen in the right direction toward their fitness goals, recommending exercises and fitness programs.

“We’re trying to capture stuff like that and set them off,” said Gruse. “We’re not necessarily writing the program for them, we’re giving them all the tools they need when they decide on a program.”

That’s essentially what the exercise physiology program did for Johnson. Extended military orders gave her more consistent access to fitness facilities and exercise physiologist services. Johnson says she doesn’t do anything fitness related without consulting with Gruse first, helping her maintain focus and work toward clear and productive goals.

“If I did it on my own,” said Johnson, “I’d be all over the place.”

Gruse loves getting to play a role in transformation stories like Johnson’s.

“It’s fun watching the turnarounds, because people get so excited,” said Gruse. “They realize that it takes hard work, but it’s really not as hard as you think it’s going to be. It’s just getting the consistency down.”

To Airmen in danger of failing consecutive fitness tests or struggling to meet fitness goals, Johnson offers some advice: “Don’t be afraid to ask.”

Her transformation validates her advice.