Goldfein emphasizes fitness by walking (actually, running) the walk

  • Published
  • By Charles Pope
  • Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

It wasn’t so long ago, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein half-jokingly conceded, that the only time he experienced the liberating euphoria of a “runner’s high” were the days when he wasn’t training.

But there he was Sept. 21, toeing the starting line on a muggy, heavy day waiting for the gun to launch him on his first-ever Air Force half marathon.

By the time he finished 13.1 miles later, the 59-year-old Goldfein was able to claim a personal achievement and something larger—a hard to miss statement from the highest levels about the critical role fitness plays in assuring that the Air Force meets every mission, every time and everywhere.

This is no small matter for Goldfein.

For the better part of a year and across locations as diverse as Thule Air Base, Greenland, to Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida; Spangdahlem AB, Germany to Shaw AFB, South Carolina, he has spoken directly and at every opportunity about the importance of being fit, not just for physical strength but also for resiliency, stamina and mental focus.

“We’re the service that deploys globally, and I don’t know when I’m going to ask you to deploy to a place where it’s 120 degrees on the ramp or 30 (degrees) below on the flightline,” Goldfein said. “I just know that when you arrive is not the time to start a fitness program.”

He also is emphatic that, when it comes to fitness, “I should never ask any Airman to do something that I’m not willing to do,” so Goldfein revamped the way he trained, using an interval approach that mixed running with recovery walks to prepare for the half marathon.

His goal is twofold: to instill a culture of fitness that is deeply rooted but not “negative” or punitive. He is emphatic that this focus on fitness carries no mandate or review or official “measurements” of progress.

“I’m not looking to do any admin; there’s zero admin with this,” he said. “I’m not going to go out and measure or do surveys. … Because I completely trust commanders and senior (noncommissioned officers) to get after it, I don’t feel any need to measure it.”

“All I have to do is share intent and make sure that I live up to what I’m asking them to do,” Goldfein said of his command teams.

While not an official mandate, Goldfein’s interest and emphasis are clear. He raised it, for example, during his recent meeting with wing commanders. “We spent a lot of time talking about it. Initial reception I think was very positive.”

During his brief stay at Wright-Patterson AFB for the race, Goldfein spoke with Capt. Noah Palicia, a C-130J instructor pilot stationed at Yokota AB, Japan, who gained notoriety the week before by winning the inter-service Alpha Warrior competition in San Antonio.

The Alpha Warrior competition, Palicia said, demands strength, stamina, agility and problem solving. Training for the competition, which is spreading across the Air Force and other services, also promotes collaboration and leadership.

“It really flips everything on its head because you’ve got a series of obstacles that look extremely difficult and deter a lot of people,” Palicia said. “But you have somebody who can help you out so there’s comradery, and you overcome some of these obstacles.

“It helps with resiliency, too, which is the kind of stuff we need to encourage. We run into obstacles every day in life whether they be mental or physical. Before Alpha Warrior, it was run and lift. Now, you’re mixing the high intensity elements of CrossFit with the coordination, quickness, speed and agility of Ninja Warrior. I can see it helping. Anything you can do collectively as a group and this is one of the best things you can do collectively.”

There’s plenty of science supporting Goldfein’s effort.

“Physical activity can provide considerable benefits to both physical and mental health and can buffer the negative effects of stress,” concluded a study by the respected think tank, the Rand Corp.

Researchers also agree that fitness is important even when the task involves brains rather than brawn. A 2018 peer-reviewed study of middle-school students in South Korea found “a significant correlation between physical fitness and academic achievement. Specifically, students with higher levels of physical fitness tend to have higher academic performance.”

That is important since another prominent message from Goldfein is how the nature of conflict is evolving in a way where information, data, analysis and “cognition” are more critical elements than ever before.

The ability to think and analyze is “completely connected” to being physically fit, Goldfein said. “That’s the conversation I had with the wing commanders … I told them, what’s tough about your job isn’t physical, it’s mental. That’s the challenge of the chief of staff of the Air Force, keeping everybody mentally in the game. … To have that kind of mental clarity requires physical fitness. There’s a direct tie.”

Goldfein uses himself as an example.

“If I get to work in the morning and I didn’t work out that morning, I feel it; I feel it that day. I feel it in terms of how clear my head is working on these tough issues,” he said. “My best days are when I start with a good workout. Always.”

On that point as well, Goldfein is not alone.

A recent story on the ESPN website noted how Magnus Carlsen, the world’s No. 1 ranked chess player, follows a rigorous workout before major tournaments, running, practicing yoga, playing soccer, even skiing.

"Physical fitness and brain performance are tied together, and it shouldn't be a surprise that grandmasters are out there trying to look like soccer players," Maurice Ashley, grandmaster and chess commentator,  says in the story.

While the effort moves forward without an official order or mandate, Goldfein is optimistic. He has sent the message and literally devoted “sweat equity.” Commanders as well agree fitness is important.

“They set the culture of the organization; if they’re fit and they focus on fitness their organization will naturally be focusing on fitness,” he said. “That’s my hope here that from the top down we emphasize fitness as a responsibility of being an Airman.”