When Robert Carter retired from the Army after 30 years of service, he hoped to maintain the fitness focus he’d kept up most of his life.
As a teenager, Carter was incredibly active. Before enlisting at 17 years old, he’d played football and been a drummer in the marching band. And after dropping out of high school, he worked a series of manual labor jobs, including a gig fixing concrete on Southern highways and another welding coal temple in the mountains of West Virginia.
“I was always just strong,” he recalls. “Lucky to be. That’s how I made money as a kid — mowing grass, raking leaves, shoveling cow manure out of barns.”
Carter had always wanted to join the Army but, when he enlisted and discovered that he’d be able to work with trucks and transportation, he knew he’d found his calling. This was a job that allowed him to carve out a life for himself, build a family, and remain on the go.
As he worked his way through the ranks, eventually furthering his education and becoming a chief warrant officer, Carter took pride in his physical performance. He attended daily physical training (PT) sessions and earned a Fitness Expert badge on the annual PT exam from 1986–1999.
“We have to be so physically fit [in the Army] that a 5- or 6-day event won’t make our soldiers so tired and depleted that they can’t make decisions,” he explains.
‘I learned what being physically active does to your brain’
During his time in the Army, Carter found solace in his exercise routine, particularly running. The Army taught him how to run in formation to a particular cadence: left, right, left.
“I learned how much thinking you can do when you’re jogging a couple of miles,” he says, “and how many issues you can resolve. Riding a bicycle, getting on a treadmill, being more active — it helps you think outside the box.”
Carter found that during his workouts, he was able to mentally multitask and troubleshoot pressing issues.
“You’re doing what you need to do to move well throughout your day,” he says, “but you’re also, on a subconscious level, thinking through things, and answers are coming to you. Being on the bike for 45 minutes, sweating, with my core really engaged — afterward, I’m feeling really good mentally. I’m in the present, and I’m here.”
When Carter retired, something shifted. He went through a rough period in his life and started drinking to cope. He gained 100 pounds, developed high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and became borderline diabetic.
“I let the physical stuff fall,” he recalls. “I was trying to hide from myself for a minute.”
At rock bottom, Carter realized that the only person who could turn things around was himself.
He began a new workout routine that centered heavily around gentle cardio, like the elliptical machine. He started visiting the sauna at the gym, where he forced himself to stretch, the part he hated doing. Most importantly, he cut back on drinking and changed his diet. From there, he worked in upper and lower body work on the weight machines at the gym, with an emphasis on “mixing things up.”
“The body gets accustomed to certain workouts, and it might not benefit you the same way,” he says.
Eventually, he started following along with at-home workout programs like P90X and Insanity, which taught him that all you need for a challenging workout is your own body and the floor. The weight began to drop, first quickly and then more slowly. It took Carter a decade of near-daily workouts and sustained lifestyle changes to return to his baseline weight.
These days, Carter works as a civil servant for the Army. Recently, after he returned to the office three weeks after his second knee replacement, a co-worker remarked, “You must have really been in shape with the Army because you recover from things quickly!”
Considering his journey, recovery is a point of pride for Carter. While the rehab work to heal his knees is excruciating at times, he says that his motivation is never for today but tomorrow. He knows that someday in the future, when he moves or gets up from a sitting position, he won’t be struggling in the same way, and he’ll be motivated to do even more.
“Your body gives you a bit, you take a bit more,” he says.
From where he stands now, Carter’s future looks bright. He’s excited about eventually moving to a retirement community with his wife and being able to walk, explore, and continue his fitness routine there.
As avid travelers, Carter and his wife plan to embark on even more frequent, longer trips once he’s retired.
“I’m starting to get excited because there are so many other things I want to do,” he emphasizes. “How lucky for me that I love what I do, but this is the same old muscle memory I’ve always used. In the future, we can visit places longer. We want to cut back even more on drinking and get in even better shape.”
For those looking to become more active, Carter recommends starting slow.
“If you told me 10 years ago all of the things I’d need to do to get back on track, I would’ve been overwhelmed,” he says.” “Remember that you’re doing this for future you. Bodies in motion stay in motion. And you’ve gotta care about yourself enough to discipline yourself.”
Carter says that working out might be strenuous and unenjoyable sometimes, but somewhere during the process, it becomes enjoyable. We get into it as we move.
“All of the habits that you gain while working out improve your life. You learn that your body can absorb pain, and it’s going to make you better in the long run. It’s all about how people approach it, timing, and availability of resources to each person. There’s no reason not to be a little bit healthier.”
At the end of the day, it’s all about taking that first step, just as he did when he joined that Army formation for the very first time: left, right, left.