WASHINGTON, DC — During the current economic recession, spending in many areas of the fitness industry remains on hold, but not necessarily for the military. In an effort to update aging facilities across most branches of the military and improve the quality of life for soldiers, the U.S. government has been investing substantial amounts of money into facility construction and sustainment.

“For the fourth year in a row, the fiscal year (FY) 2010 funding provided by Congress represented a significant increase from historical funding levels. In 2010, over $2.7 billion in funding will provide facilities that address long-standing requirements at our bases and stations,” Carlton Kent, sergeant major of the Marine Corps, testified on April 14 before a House Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies.

Kent said his branch's FY2011 budget request includes $2.8 billion to support Marines by upgrading facilities, including quality of life buildings, such as fitness centers.

What prompted the government to update these military facilities? Prolonged wars and tours of duty have made soldier quality of life issues important for retention. And having physically fit troops is essential to any mission, says Lisa Sexauer, fitness, sports and deployed forces commander, Navy Installations Command Fleet and Family Readiness.

“Fitness is a high visibility program area, and each of the services makes it mission essential,” she says.

In 2009, the Department of Defense (DOD) and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) allocated additional funds to support fitness center and sports center renovation projects, says Sexauer, adding that the Navy received $20.5 million for such projects.

“OSD is hoping again to invest some in the future,” Sexauer says. “They funnel funds to services and did studies to show the fitness infrastructure needs work.”

A few years ago, OSD developed a funding model to determine how much money was needed to sustain military facilities, Kent told the subcommittee.

“This model continues to be refined and strengthened,” he testified. “Since inception of the model, and because of the funding standards put in place by OSD, we have done very well in programming and execution of sustainment.”

Such initiatives enabled the Air Force to fund 44 fitness center projects totaling $447 million over the past 10 years. Those projects included add-ons to existing centers and replacing old and undersized facilities, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Roy told the Congressional subcommittee.

In addition to modernizing fitness facilities, the military also is updating its thinking about fitness programming and equipment. Duty roles for soldiers today are different now compared to those performed even a generation ago, says Pat Paul, government sales manager at Star Trac, Irvine, CA.

“Warfare is different than it was 20 years ago,” he says. “They're getting individuals more prepared for real life situations in combat. They've got individuals that can bench press but not carry a body. The activities are different. Their missions are a lot different.”

Paul notes that this change in thinking is apparent in the military's equipment purchases, which are trending more toward functional training equipment, such as kettlebells and pull-up bars, than traditional treadmills and strength equipment.

Paul also says that fitness equipment manufacturers are hiring and training more sales reps to reach the government and education markets, based on future growth potential.

Military representatives say it's hard to predict what's ahead in the 2011 budget, however.

“Quite frankly, we do not know what guidance we're going to receive about the FY11 budget in general, much less how it will impact individual program areas,” says William Bradner, deputy public affairs officer for the Army's Family and MWR Command (FMWRC). “Fortunately, FMWRC has recently upgraded all its fitness equipment through an enterprise buy program… but we haven't even begun to submit business cases and proposed budgets for the next year.”

Sexauer also is cautious about predicting future budget allocations.

“Right now, we're not even able to predict if the Navy will continue to spend on fitness,” she says. “I think cutbacks are being felt everywhere, and we are no exception. The Navy is going to feel the pinch in the coming year, and we're going to have to accommodate a shrinking budget.”

So whether military spending will continue at current levels for fitness-related programs and facilities remains to be seen. But the military is increasingly aware of the effects the obesity epidemic has on the fitness levels of its new recruits, so a continued focus on physical training will only improve soldiers' abilities to perform their duties.