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Mindset change key to Reservist’s fitness reversal

Fitness

Tech. Sgt. Samantha Conner, a healthcare management technician with the 911th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station in Pennsylvania, loses 46 pounds while deployed in 2017. Conner experienced a few life setbacks in her civilian life and gained 50 pounds in a year at age 24, but then changed her mindset about fitness as a lifestyle five years later, just before her deployment. As a Reserve Citizen Airman, Conner works in healthcare management for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and in her spare time she runs, lifts weights and does yoga. (Courtesy photo)

DENVER -- For one reservist while deployed, losing about 30 percent of her body weight and gaining lean muscle mass wasn’t just a physical transformation. It was also a mental one.

“Being fit wasn’t always a mindset for me,” said Tech. Sgt. Samantha Conner, a healthcare management technician with the Air Force Reserve’s 911th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at Pittsburgh Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania. As a competitive swimmer in high school, Conner said she was naturally athletic and being out of shape never crossed her mind back then, more than 10 years ago.

Fast forward to the present. She was in a different frame of mind Feb. 16-18 during an Air Force Reserve Yellow Ribbon Reintegration Program event in Denver. While attending a Fitness & Wellness breakout session, she nodded her head in agreement with familiar, but reassuring words from the instructor, 1st Lt. D’Anthony Harris, a Reserve medical readiness officer. Harris is a program analysis training assistant for Yellow Ribbon, which promotes the well-being of reservists and their families by connecting them with resources before and after deployments through a series of training weekends around the country. In his civilian job Harris is a behavioral therapist currently earning a personal trainer certification. He has studied human behavior as it relates to health and wellness.

“You can have all of the best personal trainers, all the best gyms and information at your fingertips, but if you don’t make a choice to use any of these, they won’t work,” Harris said. “You have to make these choices for yourself and know it’s more about building a better quality of life.”

Creating a higher quality of life didn’t enter Conner’s mind until things started changing for the worse. For the first five years of her Air Force Reserve career, she passed physical fitness tests fairly easily. By age 24, life started unraveling. Her marriage was falling apart, and she was quickly gaining weight. Air Force physical fitness tests were no longer easy and, in fact, had now become a huge source of stress for her, she said. The pressure increased when Conner’s unit was selected in 2015 to deploy to Afghanistan in 2017.

At the time she was chosen to deploy she had passed her most recent fitness test. But she failed her next three. A fourth failure would mean the end of her Air Force Reserve career after a decade.

“I knew I needed to do something, but I didn’t have the right mindset,” said Conner, who works as a full-time health administrator at the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Pittsburgh.

“I hated looking at myself in the mirror,” she said. “I hated being in family photos. I didn’t want to accept what I’d done to myself, but I also didn’t care enough then to do anything about it.”

But with her upcoming deployment she would need to refocus on new priorities. It was time to finally change her mindset. If she didn’t, it was possible she would not be allowed to join her unit overseas.

“All I was thinking is, ‘I’m going to lose this deployment,’” she said. “I also decided I didn’t want to look or feel that way anymore. And, I really wanted to be positive role model for my younger siblings and the younger Airmen in my unit.”

Determined to not fail, Conner made choices to start exercising and eating better. She scored above a 90 on her fitness test, allowing her to take her next test a year later instead of six months.
Her deployment was fast approaching, and so she knew she would need to shift her mindset again. Passing her fitness test was a triumph, but she didn’t want to lose this positive momentum while overseas. She wanted to be one of those people who went over and “worked, worked out, ate and slept” – that’s it.

“You see these people going over there and reaching their fitness goals,” she said. This had already happened with her unit when about 30 people deployed in 2011 and many returned being really fit, she said.

Conner returned home from her deployment in December 46 pounds lighter than when she left six months earlier.

“Her motivation was amazing,” said Master Sgt. Luca Farkas, a medical technician in the same unit who was Conner’s workout partner during the deployment and saw the transformation from start to finish. “She didn’t make excuses and was very determined. She also motivated others in the hospital.”

Conner’s coworkers nicknamed her “Thin Mint” after noticing she was becoming more svelte and happier as the days and weeks went on with the deployment.

Back almost to her high school weight, Conner is treating fitness as a part of her lifestyle now, not just something to pass a test, she said. It changed the way she thinks of herself. She said she would never allow herself to use lack of time as a reason for not working out. During the Yellow Ribbon Fitness & Wellness session, that was the first answer someone in the audience gave for why people don’t prioritize fitness in their lives.

“Now that I look back at all of the excuses I made they seem pathetic to me,” said Conner. At the time, she said her excuses seemed acceptable.

Conner admits she doesn’t always get in a full hour of working out, which is only about 4 percent of a 24-hour day. She recalled this statistic from a motivational statement she saw while deployed. On days when she is busier than normal, and a full 60 minutes isn’t possible, she said she manages to at least get in some yoga or 10 minutes of high-intensity interval training.

In addition to her renewed outlook on her overall fitness as a lifestyle, Conner said her family -- some of whom joined her at the Yellow Ribbon event -- was hugely supportive of her throughout the good and the bad. Her mother, Mary Denise Early, witnessed her daughter’s downfall and transformation over the years.

“It was so hard to watch her struggle and it wasn’t like her to let herself go,” said Early. “I had to have a heart-to-heart with her to find out what was going on. That’s when I found out about her marriage.”

Early said she had mixed feelings when she learned her daughter would deploy.

“Part of me was worried, but part of me could see it was giving her a purpose,” said Early. The mother of seven also has a daughter and son both serving on active duty with the Air Force and Army, and said she wishes they had events like the Yellow Ribbon, which began in 2008 following a congressional mandate for the Department of Defense to assist reservists and National Guard members in maintaining resiliency as they transition between their military and civilian roles.

“Everything here has been really informative and we’ve learned something in every class,” said Early. “I can see it being really good for helping families to bond better.”

While Conner doesn’t have the same “work, workout, eat, sleep” schedule as she did when deployed, she said she is confident she now has the right mindset to help her physically and mentally through each day. She emphasized that she never deprives herself of favorite food items, like chocolate cake, and that it’s more about making better choices overall.

Anyone else feeling stuck should “realize they are not alone, and asking for help is perfectly OK,” she said. “Everyone wants a ‘right now fix,’ but it’s OK to take it one day at a time and to know that not every day is gonna be easy.”

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