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A Safe Space in a War Zone

By Dana Ayers

This year held a big change for my normal workout routine and me; I have been deployed overseas with our military. Now I’m somewhere in Afghanistan and find myself re-learning lessons about the importance of fitness against the backdrop of this new environment.

I’m appreciating timeless fitness truths, such as how helpful exercise is in combating stress; working out can connect us to the people around us just by virtue of struggling in the same, sweaty space; and how important it is to not wait for perfect conditions.

That last point is especially relevant for me. Perfect conditions are never a reality here.

Normally when I don’t have good workout choices, I simply run outside. Here, however, the air quality is so bad that we’re advised against that. Strike one.

Thankfully, since fitness is important for the military, there are “gyms” here. One is outdoors and resembles a prison yard, with kettle bells, tires, and barbells strewn about. The other is in a giant tent, with half-broken equipment, and dozens of men from multiple countries, many of which have strong relationships with aftershave, and weak relationships with deodorant. Strike two.

Finally, the elevation is much higher here than I’m used to, so the “runner” I am now is kind of like the runner I was in D.C., if you put 400 extra pounds on me. And added 70 years to my age. And gave me emphysema. Strike three.

However, all these issues aside, I can’t complain. They actually have gym classes here– like Spinning, and Tabata. Of course, the environment is just a tad different than the $40 gym classes back home where they spritz you with lavender water after your soul-yogalates-bodypump session before whisking you away to the “locker room” full of Hollywood lighting and free Kiehl’s products.

Here, the typical gym offerings are more like: a treadmill stuck on an incline that only displays distance in a metric I don’t understand; a rusted elliptical machine in between a sweaty Polish contractor and an Italian soldier in too much spandex; and a weight machine with part of the padding ripped off that has just been “disinfected” by a chemical that likely eats human flesh. No Lululemon here!

But all that aside, working out in any environment still offers that universal sense of community and positivity.

My first trip to the gym here was to attend a Spinning class. The class consisted of people from about five different nationalities, all confusedly trying to follow along. The instructor was Turkish with a thick accent I couldn’t understand. He clearly had never been trained in proper cycling techniques, and he had us doing ridiculous made-up moves that I was convinced would snap my pedal right off at any second (I later learned one guy’s pedal did snap off in an earlier class, so clearly, I’m earning my Hazard Pay here.) But everyone in that room was determined to get their workout in, so we pressed on.

…even when the instructor made us sit somehow behind the seat and nearly pull the whole bike on top of ourselves.

…even when he had us do weird arm dance movements that seemed to have no health benefit whatsoever.

…even when he played Katy Perry and led us all – bewildered Army dudes included – to pump our fists in the air to “Firework.”

We pressed on.

We pressed on because here, just like anywhere, fitness proves itself to be an important part of life. I spend long hours at work, so being healthy is a struggle. Sometimes I end up eating the contents of a Care Package as a meal, like Raman noodles. Or trail mix. Or Red Vines…. But even after long days with no days off, something inside asks, “can we just get blood flowing now?” So off to the weird gym I, and throngs of others, go. The gym housed in a giant tent with half-broken equipment, near coils of concertina wire, not far from the barrels where everyone clears their rifles. The gym where we can forget about where we are, what we see, or what we do on a daily basis.

So conditions aside, fitness here is like fitness anywhere else. It won’t always be perfect, or pretty (or smell good), but in the end, it’s life-giving. It’s a positive thing where we’re all in it together, just trying to do the best we can in our safe space. (Well… safe except for that spinning class.)

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Dana Ayers is the author of the #1 Best Seller “Confessions of an Unlikely Runner (A Guide to Racing and Obstacle Courses for the Averagely Fit and Halfway Dedicated).” Dana accidentally became a runner over 10 years ago and has logged a vast array of average finish times since. She is a former White House staffer, and current military reservist.