Air Force Staff Sgt. Matthew Irick remembers how hard it was to stay in shape when he was working the swing shift as a cook at Joint Base Charleston, S.C.
Forget about grabbing a workout during midnight lunch break — all the fitness centers were closed.
“It was hard getting any PT in. I’d get off work and have to wait two hours before anything was open,” he says. “Most of the time [when] you get off shift, you just want to go to bed.”
He was still able to pass his PT test, but barely. “I wasn’t in nearly as good a shape as when it was easy to work out every day.”
That won’t be a problem any more — at least not for airmen. Taking a page from fitness centers downrange where most gyms are always open, within the next year the Air Force will convert at least one fitness center at every base into a 24-hour facility.
Most, if not all, gyms will be unstaffed after hours. Only Common Access Cards will open locked doors, while a suite of security cameras keeps an eye on things, says program manager Lt. Col. Richard Roberts.
“It’s intended to allow after-hours, unsupervised access to fitness centers,” Roberts says.
The idea came from airmen just like Irick. “It was generated from our nontraditional workforce — our security forces and maintainers, who work swing shifts and some pretty odd hours — and when they get off, didn’t have access,” Roberts says.
The idea was tested at six installations beginning last summer. Designed as a one-year pilot program, it was so successful that Air Force leaders decided to go all in within six months.
The upgrades, expected to begin in June, will cost a total of $2.2 million for 58 bases across the U.S. and overseas.
While the Navy opted to open one 24/7 gym at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C., in its own test of the concept, the rest of the services are in a holding pattern.
“The program was offered up to our sister services, but for now, for the most part, they’re going to sit back and watch the Air Force be the guinea pigs here,” Roberts says.
“Much like we were, they’re very concerned about the safety aspect. I think that’s why they’re going to kick back and observe us for a while, to make sure nothing out of the ordinary comes up and just see if there’s any lessons learned on the safety front.”
But so far, so good, with no reports of injury, theft or violence at any of the installations that have already expanded their gyms to 24/7 operation, Roberts says.
Indeed, the idea has been such a hit that at least four more bases have scraped together enough money out of their own budgets to install the security and safety upgrades on their own.
Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio is among them. That’s where Irick manages f.
“People definitely like it. You can’t hate a gym that’s open 24/7,” he says.
Late-night safety concerns are mitigated with a base rule that requires working out in pairs.
“You have to have a wingman,” he says. “We haven’t had any problems.”
In fact, his biggest concern was that he’d be left cleaning up messes every morning, but so far, that has proved unfounded. “I haven’t come in to too much of a disaster — yet.”
In fact, the only complaint he’s had so far is that the “CrossFitters aren’t putting their stuff away.”
“It’s been great, actually,” he says. “This is definitely the wave of the future.”
Jon R. Anderson is a staff writer for OFFduty. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.