In the eyes of Dr. Dan Bornstein, being in great shape and focusing on fitness is a top priority in his life. On the personal side, it helps him be a better father, husband, and overall person. Professionally, he wants to be at his best as a firefighter and to help assist the United States Armed Forces as they try to develop the next generation of members that will defend freedom.
Those two sides of his life and the connection to fitness intersect at the time he was 11 years old when he suffered a broken back.
“I decided to try to set the world record for stair jumping in my childhood home,” he joked. “I tried to jump down as many stairs as possible because I thought that would be a good idea.”
Bornstein wasn’t able to play youth sports or take part in PE class. He was put in a back brace and was told not to move. At the time, that was what medical science believed to be the best way to recover. It actually turned out to be the opposite. Bornstein wasn’t able to improve his condition until he found ways to move.
“The less I moved, the more pain I got in,” he recalled. After two years, he began physical therapy and was allowed to take part in PE, his recovery process began. By the time he was in high school, he was playing lacrosse and soccer. He played the first sport in college, and also studied sports medicine. Bornstein noted that the fitter he is, the better his back feels. At times, he still felt back pain, even occasionally having to go to the hospital for spasms, but he found meditation served as the best way to get through it and move forward.
“My brother is a meditation teacher, and he asked me if I tried it before, if I ever just sat still, quietly, with my own thoughts.” said Bornstein. “He sent me some resources, and I started doing that. In practicing and getting better at that, it actually took the pain away after a few months.”
Bornstein also trains regularly, and he’s even competed as a natural bodybuilder. Once he finished school, he pursued another passion – firefighting. When he broke his back, he was taken to the hospital by local firefighters. That moment was what served as the inspiration to pursue that career on a volunteer basis.
“On my 18th birthday, I walked into the Bedford Village Fire Department, and signed up to be a fireman.”
Bornstein served in multiple locations in multiple roles, including as an EMT for eight years. Serving the communities, he lived in during those years meant a lot to him, but another takeaway was the importance of being your best for others.
“That was when I really first learned the importance of fitness for the team, other than a sports team,” he explained. “Going into a burning building, other firefighters going in with me are counting on me to be fit just as I was counting on them.”
Bornstein would also work in the fitness industry by owning gyms in Tucson, Arizona. His facilities were predecessors to what is now called “high performance centers.” His businesses had teams of physical therapists, trainers, strength coaches, dietitians, behavioral therapists, and massage therapists, and more.
“[They] were all working together with our clients, which ranged from soccer moms to elite athletes.”
After ten years, he sold the gyms, and he along with his wife moved back to the east coast. After graduating from the University of South Carolina with a degree in Exercise Science, he developed an interest in health and public service. His emphasis wasn’t necessarily on structured fitness, but on physical health.
“How can we get an entire population of people to be just a little more physically active to prevent chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s Disease, Diabetes, Cancer?”
All of the above experiences led him to the mission he is working on now – the future of the United States military. Bornstein has been very actively working to find ways to prepare future generations of Americans to not only be healthy enough to live, but to also be willing to serve their country. That journey began while he was working at The Citadel.
“It was there that I continued that line of interest and started doing research with the US Army Public Health Center,” he explained. That research has evolved and progressed into Bornstein working tirelessly to educate the public about the issues and finding ways to resolve them so the Armed Forces are best prepared for the future. Initial research concluded that possible future recruits from southern states are more likely to be either unable to qualify for service, or they would be more likely to get injured during service.
“Not only are these states disproportionately problematic for public health, but they are disproportionately problematic for military readiness and national security,” he revealed. In Bornstein’s eyes, “That served as the springboard to start a program at the Citadel to not only shine a spotlight on the problem, but to solve the problem.”
Bornstein was a part of a team at The Citadel that developed the first actual Bachelor’s and Master’s degree programs in Tactical Strength and Conditioning, which had never been available before. He eventually relocated to the Northeast, but he still works as a consultant, working with the Army as well as the Department of Defense. He also works with the VA and he’s been active with Total Force Fitness. Furthermore, Bornstein holds the position of Chair for the military sector of the US National Physical Activity Plan. That plan was released in July 2022. That is a lot for one man to have on his plate while also living as a husband and father, but he understands the seriousness of the issue.
“We are losing ground to our near peer adversaries,” he stated. “While we haven’t yet faced them on the battlefield, that potential is becoming ever more real. We do not have a population of people that are ready to serve their country, either in the military or even as a productive member of society. We have a serious problem with the fitness of our youth population and our ability to maintain our position as the global superpower.”
While there doesn’t appear to be good news in that revelation, Bornstein hasn’t only been talking about the problem – he’s helping with solutions as well. Outside of the work he’s already done, he’s been an advocate for being more active.
“The first way to solve this is to take care of your own house first,” he advised. “If you’re a teacher, physician, mother, father, then you’re a role model for our youth.”
Bornstein acknowledged that there are a variety of differences that play a role in how healthy people are, including how and where we were raised, socioeconomic status, and what we have access to. The universal principle of pulling the boot straps up and carrying up may have some merit, but the less access you have, the harder that is to apply. The good news is that improving your physical health doesn’t only mean getting in the gym or spending hours on an elliptical. There can be a compound effect that comes with doing several little things over the course of a day that can make a difference for each person that applies them.
“Every night after dinner, go for a walk. If you’re watching TV together as a family, get up during the commercial breaks and jog in place. If you go to the store, park at the far end of the parking lot and walk those extra steps.”
Outside of those small tasks, making policy changes in your homes or businesses can also yield positive results.
“If you’re a parent, set rules for being active. If you’re a physician, make it a policy to talk to your patients about physical activity. It’s your obligation to have that conversation and ask what ways you find to be physically active.”
Bornstein advised that between parents and people in role model positions working to get younger folks more active and veterans continuing to pursue personal fitness success, the issues that surround the health and our nation can be resolved so we can improve our national security and continue leading the world as the superpower we’ve been, but the action needs to start being taken now. You being your best in the best way possible for you is key for the improvement of your life and the land on which you live. There is no hyperbole behind that statement, either. However, that doesn’t mean molding yourself to follow a specific plan from someone else if it doesn’t apply well to you. It’s important for you to find what works best for yourself at the stage of life you’re in.
“Fitness is something that evolves. We have to be open to the ways and types of things that we do that will best nourish our bodies, minds, and spirits over the course of time. Things will change. We may not be able to do the same things we did when we were 18, 20, or 25 years old. Certainly, an active lifestyle and a fit lifestyle will continue to serve us.”