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Fitness for Survival and the Power of a Battle Buddy

By Dana Ayers

I’m halfway through my Afghanistan deployment and exercise has continued to prove crucial for survival.

Not because I’m running for my life during gunfights every day, but just in dealing with an abnormal, stressful environment. (Although just getting here alone required being in decent shape:  living in tents; getting in and out of strange vehicles and aircraft; and hauling 3 sea-bags, a 50+pound Rucksack with body armor, two weapons, and two backpacks across 4 countries. Good thing I lift, Bro!)

When I arrived, I was warned that people are “concentrated versions of themselves” on deployment. Personalities, emotions, and irritations are all stronger. Because my tour is less than a year and my base is fairly safe, I wasn’t sure how much of that I would actually see.

Then I watched my boss kick a door open.

Not, as in, part of her job – like she was entering a house. As in – she got up from our morning meeting like a tornado in frustration, and kicked open the door leading out of our conference room.

Ok, so maybe this “concentrated personalities” thing has some truth to it, I thought. I guess we all eventually start walking around this place like shaken soda cans with all our contents under pressure.

I mean, things can get frustrating here, sure. And I do have to wear my hair in a bun every day and it’s breaking my hair off— that’s stressful in Girl World! So I get it. That’s why I’m often Wangry.

Wangry: Workout-Angry. Definitions include:

1. The state of working out even when you don’t want to, so you begrudgingly march into the gym, resenting every move you make.

2. The act of working out your anger. For me, that’s often manifested here as me pedaling furiously on the elliptical, pony tail swinging violently as I mouth the words to the rap song in my headphones and try to avoid glances from the coalition forces around me.

Wanger helps.

My door-kicking boss and I have both learned to rely on this survival method. We’ve started taking Tabata classes two to three times a week in the big tent down the road so that we can take out our stress on burpees and mountain climbers, rather than on office equipment. We join the little races they do here sometimes, or we pedal side by side on ellipticals, or battle next to each other on rowing machines.

We both have our music on during these workouts. We’re each burning off our own individual mental tally of annoyances. But yet it still means something to be together; to take the step together to go workout in the first place. Just having someone next to you makes it feel more achievable to take a break and get out from under the pressure. 

Each time one of us goes to work out, my boss and I check in with each other. “Hey! I’m going to the gym…..” We consciously leave the door open for the other one to look up wild-eyed from her computer and say “Wait! I need that too. I’m joining you!”

I guess in a place like this— where everyone you work with is also everyone you live with and essentially your entire universe for months— you tend to become a bit co-dependent. You wait for each other to go everywhere. Sometimes you’re even ordered to have someone with you, for safety reasons— a “battle buddy.” But I think one of the things that’s helped me the most here has been having that battle buddy spurring me on to get in those stress-busting, wangry gym appointments. And I think that’s true whether you’re in a war zone or not.

I recently learned about a group of kids in Kabul who started practicing Parkour. They were described as finding freedom through movement in a country full of dangerous conflict. Through free-running, they could feel liberated, regardless of the chaos around them.

That transcendent power of sports and movement is there for us all. Whether we workout to deal with an unfamiliar environment, a never-ending war, or just the pressures of commuting to work every day— it becomes a survival tool. And often it’s one we forget about or ignore because it feels too difficult to fit a workout in. That’s why we need to be battle buddies for each other.


The next time you head to the gym, check in with a friend you know is stressed. They may be close to kicking something in a meeting. Or yelling at their spouse. Or giving away their children….

Create an opportunity for them to grab hold of exercise as a survival tool. It might just be a simple statement from you. “Hey! I’m going to the gym….”

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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.