Raising Fitness Levels in the IDF
05 December 2007 , 16:47
Infantry soldiers on a march
Infantry soldiers on a march. Archive Photo: Photo: IDF Spokesperson
Dor Blech

Since the days of the Palmach, Israeli soldiers have represented the pinnacle of physical fitness to the world.   In all the songs the soldiers were referred to "the fair of hair and complexion".  However, sometime in the 90's the trend began to change.  Male soldiers no longer looked like Michelangelo's David and studies showed female soldiers put on weight during service. This phenomenon is not specific only to the IDF but is standard in most other countries as well.   The IDF, on many occasions attempted to combat this problem but the results were not satisfactory.  Two years ago, those responsible for the general fitness and health of IDF soldiers, decided to once again press the issue of improving the soldiers' physical image.   After all, a healthy soldier is an efficient soldier. 
 
The IDF Medical Corps decided to take responsibility not only in treating and curing ailments, but also in preventing them.   Medics were trained in prevention methods as part of a new program.  In November of 2006 the first class of disease prevention medics graduated the newly established course.   These medics, with one or more designated to every base, are responsible for educating the soldiers about having a healthy lifestyle, organizing lectures by nutrition specialists and create a support system for soldiers trying to quit smoking.  
These medics are also responsible for organizing daylong seminars on health for their bases and for sanitary inspection of the bases' facilities.  
 
An emphasis was put on improving the soldiers' physical wellbeing throughout the corps of the IDF, and the human resources branch to oversee the matter established a special commission.   The commission is responsible for coordinating the many branches of the IDF in establishing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle regimen in the army:   The Logistics branch is responsible for provision of food and the medical corps and the combat fitness center are responsible for the soldiers' fitness.  Colonel Dr. Avi Moyal, who began his position as head of the combat fitness center in February of this year, has been working on the issue of improving physical fitness during his 30 years of service, well before the issue was brought up formally in the IDF.
 
"The truth of the matter is that the most important weapon in the IDF arsenal is the actual bodies of the soldiers.   A fit soldier suffers much less from injuries, misses less days of training and contributes more overall to the betterment of his unit."
Moyal encourages many senior officers and their wives to join him every Saturday for a run on the beach.  "It's worth the time and effort because it sets an example for the soldiers.  When a commander and his staff go for runs it sets an example for the soldiers under his command and if they are motivated to run they will encourage other soldiers as well", explains Moyal.   Despite the enthusiasm for exercise that these senior commanders instill in their soldiers, Moyal still finds it insufficient. A new project, "The IDF Sport and Fitness Quiz" started this month broadcasting from the Army Radio and Galgalatz. The quiz is reminiscent of the national bible quiz and will conclude in October 2008, with a grand tournament for the IDF commanders.    The first stage of the quiz will be called, "A mother's advice" and will include trivia on sports in the IDF.
 
In addition, it was decided, in joint cooperation with the athletics committee, that the IDF will send a representative to other sporting competitions.   IDF soldiers and officers will run in the Israel marathon and the soldier with the best time will be crowned "General of the IDF Marathon".    Amongst the many soldiers and officers participating in upcoming triathlons will the Tamir Bohadana who is famous for making the peace sign gesture with his fingers while being carried on a stretcher after being wounded on the battlefield in the Second Lebanon War.   Despite being badly injured, and the paralysis of his shoulder, Bohadana participated in a recent triathlon successfully completing his first sporting competition since being injured.
 
An emphasis also has been placed on female soldiers' fitness levels in the IDF.  A walking group has been organized for women in the IDF both for compulsory service and career soldiers.   The group includes participants from all over the country who come together for long hikes in order to improve their stamina and to lose weight.  The group has shown so much success that other groups are expected to be created in a similar fashion.
 
Dr. Moyal enlisted into the army in August 1974 following the Yom Kippur War.  After the war, there was a great lack of technological labor specialists so Moyal was placed in the Ordnance Corps. His focus on maintaining a high physical fitness level began at age 15, and continued throughout his service in the army.   
 
Technological work did not suit him so he asked that Itzik Mordechai, the commander of the school for military squad commanders, place him as a physical fitness instructor in the school.   Mordechai was greatly impressed by Moyal's knowledge in the field, and took him under his wing. Moyal served as a physical fitness instructor in the school for four years, eventually meeting Geyora Inbar, who guided him on his future path in the IDF.   Inbar was his company commander in the military squad commanders' school and when he was appointed as commander of the Golani brigade commando unit, he took Moyal with him to head the commando unit's fitness regimen.   After serving in that unit for two and a half years, both men transferred to the elite IAF Shaldag unit.  In those days the unit was still relatively new, and the two men were able to greatly influence the unit's design.   Inbar, through operations and Moyal influenced its fitness program.  After a number of years of serving in the unit, Moyal began his academic studies in the field of fitness and sports.   He planned to study in the famed Wingate Institute but due to a tragedy involving his friend from the unit, he was forced to study in the Ohalo College in the Jordan Valley.  
 
During his time in the Golani brigade commando unit Moyal met Avikam Shraf, who became one of his closest friends.   Shraf z"l was killed in action in Beufort, less then a year and a half after his brother Doran was killed.  Moyal, who was close to Avikam and Doron's parents noted that they were not doing well after their sons' death, so he decided to study in the Ohalo college which was close to their home. Following the conclusion of his studies,    Avikam and Doron's father developed cancer and passed away.  Their mother, Mona still keeps in contact with Moyal until this day.  
 
 
Following his three years of study, he was supposed to return to the IAF's commando unit. His plans changed when he was asked to be an adviser and to help improve instruction in the Wingate Institute training base.   Moyal agreed, but with the condition that after he helped to fix the problem he would be able to remain for an additional year to oversee the improvements and only then would return to Shaldag.   Following a year in the Institute, Moyal began preparing for his return to Shaldag.  At that time Colonel Moshe Yaalon, who would eventually become the 17th Chief of Staff, then the commander of the General Staff 'Sayeret Matkal' commando unit, asked if he would join that unit.   At that time, the unit's soldiers were suffering from many injuries and fractures. Moyal understood that the reason the soldiers were getting injuries so frequently was due to the improper physical training they were receiving.   In addition to designing new plans for training, he introduced the idea of bringing in physiotherapists to that unit, eventually leading the way for all combat units to receive on hand physiotherapists.   During his service in the General Staff  Sayeret Matkal commando unit he transformed the unit into the most physically fit unit in the IDF.
 
During last summer's war Moyal was asked by the combat fitness center to open an inquiry into battle fitness.    Moyal, accompanied by a number of training officers from the Wingate Institute worked daily for the first three weeks of the war, surveying 1,760 soldiers who had returned from Israel's northern border.   The men sat with company and battalion commanders as well as general service soldiers and reservists.  Each soldier filled out a questionnaire and approximately 20 percent of them were given an additional interview.   The results of the survey concluded that a less fit soldier was less capable on the battlefield.  During the war muscular injuries to the soldiers carrying the heavy equipment slowed the movement of troops into the battlefield.  
 
Moyal's thesis for his third academic degree, resulted in a six year survey on the influence of physical fitness on combat soldiers' ability to concentrate. The results of the survey confirmed that similar to combat in the Second Lebanon War, a soldier with a higher level of physical fitness training would have an increased concentration level over that of a soldier with less physical training.   "The results of the surveys and questionnaires found that a soldier without the proper physical training cannot hold his weapon correctly, his hands will shake, and he is incapable of properly withstanding even a small injury", explained Moyal.   "In addition, it shows that a stronger soldier, who is improperly trained, will suffer from a weak heart rate and more likely be injured.  The survey's finding must be implemented immediately.   Preparing for war is more then obtaining proper equipment and planning for what will be met on the battlefield."
 
 It was decided based on the survey's finding that all bases and combat posts on the northern border would be fitted with gyms in order for the combat soldiers to improve their physical fitness. Every week Moyal travels to a different IDF base and gives a fitness test to its soldiers.   After the test, when he dons on his ceremonial uniform it causes quite a stir amongst the troops who see not just a gym instructor but a Colonel at that.
 
"Exercise has no issues of class," he explains.  "In the General Staff commando unit I did not train my soldiers like the rest of the army was trained.   But why is a driver or a career soldier any different?  Therefore I have tried to make what I taught to the commando unit part of the training for all units.   When I give a test to the combat soldiers in Wingate, the units join in participating in various sports.  The female soldiers partake in navigational exercises suited for them; the drivers practice camouflage exercises needed for driving.   There are in essence five different programs that each corps must pass.  After completing the programs we have a picnic and awards are given and everyone enjoys themselves.   When a cook runs alongside a combat soldier do you have any idea what sort of feeling that gives him? It raises his self esteem to know he has a connection with a combat soldier.   The perfect example of that is in the General Staff base.  At any time at the gym on base, you may see combat soldiers and officers - even the head of base - exercise on a stationary bike next to secretaries cooks and drivers.   Where would you find a base commander exercising next to his secretary?  Nowhere.  This is what is planned for all bases in the near future." 
 
And who is responsible for bringing stationary bikes to the IDF?  "When I brought those bikes to the IDF the then combat fitness division head, Yossi Hymen was concerned that they weren't really suitable for combat soldiers.   But I pressed the issue especially after traveling to Los Angeles and taking a spinning instruction class by the Johnny Jay, the creator of the sport.   Now there are over 70 spinning centers in IDF units all over the country."
 
The commission for increasing a healthy lifestyle in the IDF understood that in order to effectively improve physical fitness levels there needed to be a significant change in the IDF's dining rooms.   Today, in numerous dining halls in the IDF one may find nutritional workshops set up and a dietician who has been hired to give advice to the bases on the matter of cooking healthy and creating healthier menus and to work with the cooks to create healthier meals.
 
After overseeing the nutritional program for physical operations, Moyal worked alongside the then deputy to the chief medical officer and now the current chief medical officer, Colonel Nachmen Esh on matters pertaining to nutrition.   Today proper nutrition is under the responsibility of the Logistics branch and Moyal plans to establish a special branch responsible for overseeing food and physical exercises in the army.
 
Moyal is disappointed that the Homefront command units are not upholding the advised two hour weekly exercise program for their soldiers.    "In my opinion there is always enough time for exercise. Nowadays, it is a known fact that in every army around the world, physical exercise is routine.  In the US army, four times a week, from six to eight in the morning the soldiers can all be found exercising in their base's gym."
 
"When Moshe Yaalon was commander of the General Staff commando unit, he tried to exercise three times a week because he considered exercising as important as a staff meeting.   He found time to exercise in the middle of the day eventually made that a part of his daily routine, much like many other senior officers continuing the routine even when he reached the position of Chief of Staff."
 
Moyal is now working on penning a document for the Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, to implement his findings in the field.   "I am familiar with the Chief of Staff's personality, that he has no time for nonsense.    He understands the value of the proper exercise for troops.   Despite him being very busy, I am certain he will tend to the matter.  It is a matter that must be enforced."
 
At present, Dr. Moyal appears to be happy with the current situation and looks forward to the future.  "Today, gradually, more and more commanders are starting sports programs.  I feel like there is a new spirit in the air that is catching hold of the commanders and their soldiers and eventually will spread throughout the entire IDF.   In my eyes this would be my greatest achievement ", he concluded. 
 
Towards the end of the interview, Moyal received a phone call, from a senior commander.  Another senior commander had heard about Moyal and requested to meet with him to create a special fitness program designed especially for him.   Moyal promised to meet him within the hour. 
 
"When someone asks, I drop everything to go and provide them with professional advice.  Why?   Because if I cause that person to start exercising the next morning, then his staff will begin exercising, his officers will begin exercising, his soldiers will begin exercising and finally their families and friends will begin exercising as well.   One by one I will motivate people to exercise, eventually building a large community of those who exercise.  That's how I see it."