Fitness In Frigid Temperatures

For the 3,000 to 4,000 U.S. Air Force personnel who use the newly remodeled and expanded fitness center at Eielson Air Force Base (AFB) in Alaska, seven months of -40 F winter weather just became much more bearable. In March 2007, The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers selected the design/build team of USKH Inc., an Alaska-based, multi-disciplined design firm, and Alcan General, an Alaskan general contractor, to address the existing facility’s deficiencies, many of which limited the prime function of the building--to help military personnel maintain a high level of physical fitness.

“Being fit is part of our job,” says Master Sergeant (MSgt) Susan Trejo, fitness center director. “Regardless of whether or not we are at home or in a deployed location, we need to be healthy and in excellent physical condition. Because of the long winters here, we spend most of our training time indoors. Before the remodel, 200 to 300 people would squeeze onto a basketball court each morning, trying to work out. The space definitely did not meet our needs.”

Getting Started

Despite the obvious need for an expanded facility, getting the project off the ground was a challenge. “We had to get a waiver to build it,” says MSgt Trejo. “This kind of facility isn’t normally authorized for the Air Force, but because of our unique location and climate, it made an exception for us. Participating in this project has been one of the most exciting and challenging aspects of my job. We were able to work with the design team to get the most facility we could, which translates into the best use for our population.”

The remodel/addition project adds approximately 60,000 square feet to the building, significantly increasing the amount of useable space. The remodel provides new finishes at the main entry and a new reception desk; this area not only adds interest but also provides a view and control of the main entry and the three accessible hallways adjoining the space. The addition includes a health and wellness center complete with a small kitchen and a classroom, an oversized artificial-turf exercise field, administrative offices, restrooms and an elevated one-eighth-mile running track that is open to the field. MSgt Trejo expects participation in intramural sports will increase now that they have the turf field--not only is it easier to maintain but the sports season will last longer now that teams do not have to contend with dropping temperatures and inclement weather.

Mood Lighting

The improved fitness center is expected to drastically improve the quality of life for those who use it, and MSgt Trejo thinks it will address more than just physical health. “There are a lot of factors that contribute to stress in our lives here at Eielson,” she says. “There is limited daylight, the temperature makes it hard to get outside, and, of course, there are always the responsibilities that come with our job. Being able to exercise helps relieve stress, and makes us better able to deal with challenges that may arise. Although it is important to be in good physical shape, it is imperative that we are mentally healthy as well.”

USKH Project Manager and Lead Architect Dale Smythe, AIA, ensured that his design would incorporate elements to address underlying stressors for facility users. His solution to the limited daylight was to select translucent panels for the wall system, which gives the indoor field similar light to the outdoors. The panels extend down both sides of the track and are energy-efficient, with similar (possibly equal) insulation values to a traditional wall, but allow diffused daylight to enter the facility. The diffused light helps the building meet LEED Silver requirements, and makes the space more enjoyable and dynamic for fitness training. The track also opens up a lot of space, alleviating the cramped feeling of the old facility.

Year-Round Training

The new fitness center has room for everyone, and machines to match most--if not all--needs. The added space gives MSgt Trejo and her staff the ability to bring in equipment that helps define the airmen’s level of fitness, and to expand their physical training (PT) tests from a couple months out of the year to a consistent availability. PT tests are required to make sure that airmen are physically ready to do their job when they are deployed. “If you are deployed to somewhere that has a 110 F temperature, and you are working outside all day, and if you are not fit--physically and mentally--there is no way that you will be able to do your job or take care of yourself. With our expanded capabilities, we are able to ensure that our troops are as prepared as possible for those conditions,” says MSgt Trejo.

Something For Everyone

The fitness center isn’t just for those headed overseas; it is also for those returning from deployment. “We were able to incorporate a lot of equipment that can help with rehabilitation, especially for people rehabbing their upper bodies. For example, one of the machines--the ergometer--offers a controlled way to strengthen arms without straining them. It can be used as a form of cardio [cardiovascular exercise], or just a way to add or maintain muscles,” says MSgt Trejo.

“These kinds of machines give people an opportunity to get fit that they might not have had before. We are able to add so many dimensions to working out that pretty much anyone who comes here will be able to exercise. The variety means that we will be able to find a machine to fit any need.” She reiterates the importance of exercise in dealing with stress. “For anyone who is in the military, there is a certain amount of stress that is part of your life--whether it is the stress of being deployed, returning from active duty, or just having a lot of people depending on you to perform at the best of your ability. Working out helps relieve some of that stress, and also helps us be better able to deal with old and new stressors. Our fitness center is an invaluable tool in keeping us all healthy.”

A Well-Balanced Fitness Plan

The physical component of the fitness center isn’t the only part that now offers expanded capabilities. Personnel can opt to take healthy cooking classes at the health and wellness center, where they can observe preparation techniques. “Eating a healthy, well-balanced meal is just as important as working out regularly,” says MSgt Trejo. “I think that sometimes this is overlooked, but we are trying to emphasize a total wellness approach that includes nutrition, stress management, the importance of sleep, etc. We realize that being part of the military is more than just a job, it is a lifestyle. Because of that, we want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to make healthy choices.” Personnel can now enroll in a smoking cessation class or pay a small fee to enjoy a massage.

“The importance of health and wellness cannot be overstated,” says MSgt Trejo. “Our new facility is going to impact all of us in a very, very good way.”

Gretchen Wieman is a marketing coordinator for USKH Inc. A lifelong Alaskan, she lives, works, and plays in Anchorage. She can be reached via e-mail at