America needs Rob Wilkins now more than ever. It’s late 2023 and we’re still feeling the aftereffects of Covid-19. We’re deeply divided down political party lines with a presidential election less than a year away that promises to be even more contentious than the previous two. We’re addicted to electronic devices and increasingly seeking digital connection over actual human contact, which is destroying our mental and emotional wellbeing. We’re still fighting and losing the battle against sedentarism and obesity.
Our society’s problems range from physical to mental to political, so any potential fix needs to be both productive and nonpartisan. How about fitness? We think that’s a great place to start, and the best man to spearhead the effort is Muscle & Fitness Senior Military Editor MSgt. Rob Wilkins, USAF, Ret.
We’ve told Wilkins’ story before: a distinguished member of the United States Air Force for 26 years; a military liaison for the IFBB starting in 1990, working closely with Ben and Joe Weider; a member of the esteemed President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition (PCSFN); editor of Muscle & Fitness’ popular Fit to Serve series; and, of course, a lifetime gym rat and advocate for the bodybuilding lifestyle.
That last bit of information is key. Wilkins’ career begins and ends with fitness, which he believes can bring people together and heal our bodies, minds, and even political strife.
“I think we’re fatigued from bad news from Ukraine to Israel to our border problems to still getting over Covid with the passing of family members and friends,” says Wilkins. “We need to do things that unite us and bring us hope and inspiration again. Maybe we can use fitness to bring back nonpartisanship, where people are for America as opposed to just ‘what’s good for me.’”
Deploying Fitness to Gen Z
First and foremost, the military needs Rob Wilkins. Now an emeritus member of the PCSFN, he remains a chief liaison between the Council and the Armed Forces. He’s a connector, if you will, helping the current administration by “bringing military organizations and political leaders together to talk about how important fitness is to our national security,” he says.
The United States Military has long been one of the fittest groups of men and women on the planet, so Wilkins main focus isn’t on those currently serving. He’s more concerned with future soldiers.
“We’re at the worst recruiting we’ve been in since 1973,” he says, “and most of it is because of physical inactivity and obesity. Only 23% of the population is eligible to serve in the military right now — meaning, 77% of youths between the ages of 17 and 24 cannot serve [due to not meeting military standards for physical fitness]. If they can’t serve in the military, more than likely they can’t be police officers, firefighters or first responders either.”
This is a huge problem for obvious reasons. The key to solving it, Wilkins believes, is raising awareness and educating young people on the importance of physical activity. Ideally, this would help produce a fitter crop of prospective soldiers, but fitness will help kids in any other endeavor they pursue.
“Whatever you’re doing, physical activity will make you better at it,” says Wilkins, who’s been an avid gym goer since he was a kid and maintains a regular fitness routine today as he approaches 60. “Your grades will improve, you’ll feel better, your stress levels will go down. You’ll meet people and start forming new communities at the gym and at school. If you’re a swimmer, you’ll become a better swimmer. If you’re a skateboarder, you’ll be a better skateboarder. There’s even research showing that those who exercise are better gamers because they have more stamina and better blood flow to their brains.”
In this context, recruiting is more of a soft sell. The bigger goal is to plant the seeds of living a fit, healthy lifestyle for children — particularly those in underserved communities. “You try to find those groups and figure out what they need by asking them questions like, ‘Why don’t you exercise?’’” Wilkins says. “And the answers vary. It could be, ‘I live in the inner city and there aren’t parks or sidewalks to ride a bike.’ Then you try and help them come up with things to do. ‘Can you jump rope, can you do push-ups, can you walk stairs where you live? Wherever you live, there’s probably something you can do to make yourself more fit.’”
Getting young people by the masses to exercise more is not easy, of course, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor. Fortunately, Wilkins is well connected and has help on the frontlines. Army Veteran, motivational speaker, and former White House Executive Chef Andre Rush, for example, chips in by speaking to children from troubled backgrounds. In another instance, a group of veterans recently hosted 3,500 kids in Washington, DC, educating them on the benefits of fitness and taking them through a series of exercises and athletic drills.
“At the end of the event, one kid said to me, ‘This is the best day of my life,’” Wilkins says. “That brings tears to my eyes. This is an inner city kid that, because we provided a safe space for him, he wasn’t worried about being accosted or having his sneakers stolen. This was the best day of his life, and all we did was throw a ball.”
Wilkins lives full time in Washington, DC, in the heart of what cynics would call “the swamp,” but he’s remarkably unjaded and non-polarizing. Case in point: He was first appointed to the PCSFN when President Trump was in office, then re-appointed under President Biden. In most political arenas, such bipartisan acceptance is unheard of.
Neutrality is inherent to his mission. We’re not talking about healthcare, border policy, or tax codes here. Fitness is a non-partisan issue, where both sides of the aisle agree on the urgency of fighting the national and global obesity epidemic.
“I’m not here to preach at anyone,” says Wilkins. “I don’t want to talk about politics. Music, art, food, sports, and fitness are the things that no matter what your political persuasion, you can have a great conversation with somebody without offending them or them offending you.”
When he was active in the Air Force, Wilkins served as a legislative liaison, traveling around the world with both Republicans and Democrats. In this role, he learned that, “for the most part, the two sides get along,” he says. “It’s the hot button issues that get people’s attention, but I would say about 85% of the time they agree on things.”
Bridging the political gap with health and fitness was Wilkins’ objective earlier this year when he invited four members of Congress — two Republicans and two Democrats — to join him in a local run/walk in D.C. to discuss a veteran’s initiative. The meeting was productive, with the two sides complementary to each other.
“Rob has a profound way of finding people that go together,” says Chef Rush, who’s known and worked with Wilkins in various capacities for the past five years. “It’s like a needle and thread. You have a needle and you have to find the right thread that fits it, and everybody else tries to get a different type of thread and make it fit, but it doesn’t fit. Rob’s the person that connects givers with givers, not givers with takers. If you have givers and givers, you’ll never go wrong. You’ll never go broke, never go hungry, and most importantly, you’ll never have to watch your back.”
Dan Solomon, president of the prestigious Olympia, adds, “Rob embodies everything we all aspire to be. He’s devoted to his family, his country and fitness. And he cares deeply about bringing people together. I have watched closely as he’s inspired countless kids and adults to tap into the power of physical fitness.”
A Life of Service
Everything Wilkins stands for both personally and professionally is summed up in the title of his M&F column: Fit to Serve. The articles in the series often highlight current military members to make serving in the Armed Forces look more appealing, and Wilkins makes a compelling pitch, particularly to young athletes: “If you’re a football player, a basketball player, or a baseball player, think about joining the greatest team of all — America’s team, the military,” he says.
As a recruiter, his message is firm but never pushy. “I’m not here to tell you to join the military, because it’s not for everybody,” he says. “I’m just trying to give you options.”
“Rob is military to the core,” says Chef Rush. “People ask the question, ‘What do you do after service?’ There is no ‘after service.’ There’s just service. Rob’s been serving for 30, 40-plus years and has never wavered. Every military member should strive to be on that same level, especially after retiring. In a world of hidden agendas, Rob has no hidden agenda. He just does his job diligently. It’s who he is as a person.”
No agenda, just a clear mission that gets him out of bed everyday. “My goal is to help propel the positivity of America,” Wilkins says. “No disrespect to other countries, but this is the greatest place on earth. Let’s take advantage of it because there’s enough bringing us down. Let’s find things we can do to build us up. Maybe through sport and fitness we can come together and figure out how we can all do better.”