How pilots stay healthy

A married couple share their advice for keeping fit 30,000-feet above ground.

It’s tough to see your partner only in passing, amid the morning hustle to get out the door and then falling into bed at the end of the day. Now picture getting married, then immediately being deployed. That’s what happened to Major Christine McLean and Lieutenant Commander Jeff McLean, Air Force and Navy pilots respectively, who lend new meaning to the phrase 'work-life balance.' In the dark of night in 2009, Jeff’s F-18 Hornet fighter jet linked up with Christine’s refueling plane over Afghanistan, marking the first time they’d “seen” each other since they’d married seven months prior. Since then, their lives have gotten less complicated in some ways (they avoid simultaneous deployments) and in other ways more (last year, they welcomed their daughter Maddie, pictured above). So how do they stay in fighting shape, both physically and mentally, so they can be the best parents and pilots they can? We did some recon to find out.

It's a challenge to fit in everything: career, relationships, sleep. How do you make it work?
CM: We make a lot of lists, and have learned to be realistic about time and saying ‘no’ when that item doesn’t make the priorities list. And we delegate tasks—we split chores based on the workload of that week and what we can handle. When all else fails, if you really want to make time for something and you can’t seem to fit it in, wake up earlier than everyone else.

JM: We live our lives a few months at a time. We share a Google calendar and mark things three months out. Local relatives who help with babysitting are essential.

Fitness plays a big role in your lives. What are your workouts like?
CM: We are an active family and do a lot of biking together. We live in Alexandria, Virginia, where there are some great bike trails—Maddie calls her helmet her special ‘hat.’ When I’m alone it’s more intense, switching it up between CrossFit workouts, running, group classes and biking. If I’m traveling, I’ll go on short runs without expectations of speed or distance, which allows me to explore a city or area I’ve never been before. If I can’t run, I bring a speed rope with me since it takes up no room in my bag, then add planks, pushups, sit-ups and squats.

What’s it like to work out on an aircraft carrier?
JM: For one, there’s not a lot of space. But there are treadmills and a weight room. On heavy seas, it can be hard to run on the treadmill and keep your balance, and you have to be careful lifting weights! Each carrier has a person dedicated to the fitness program for the whole crew. We also exercise as a squadron. And once we did a 10-mile run on the flight deck of the carrier while it was in the Mediterranean Sea. It was funny because you were dodging airplanes and equipment, but it was great training for our first marathon.

What about eating healthy? Is it hard to do during deployments?
JM: The hard part about eating healthy is that food is a comfort. So when you’re on the aircraft carrier and fly until 2 a.m., you just want a cheeseburger and fries. It can be tough in that atmosphere, but the Navy does a great job about having healthy food available, like fruit and salad. When we’re at home, we do cook a lot. Christine really likes it and I try to help out when she’s busy.

You have both faced a level of stress that would be unknown to most of us. How do you handle the pressure of your occupations?
CM: I think we are realistic about what we have control over. I can only affect how I react to certain situations, not the situation itself. Being realistic about how I can solve problems and tasks is a huge part of getting off on the right foot for the tasks ahead. It helps to have a good attitude and be able to laugh things off.

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