Five Points for First Responder Fitness

Editor's Note: As part of our coverage for National Firefighter Health Week, which runs Aug. 17-21, we're pleased to reintroduce an article first released to mark Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week earlier this summer. For more resources on firefighter health, visit our Health and Wellness section and the NVFC's special Health Week page.

By Bryan Fass 

To celebrate this year's Fire/EMS Safety, Health and Survival Week, I thought it appropriate to elaborate on the five key health points put forth by organizers for it. These recommendations are indeed sound and greatly needed, but still a bit vague and murky for the lay responder. So, as readers of my columns know by now, I enjoy sifting through the fluff and getting right down to the facts and science necessary for a career in public safety.

1) Don't smoke or use tobacco products
Responders, if the routine use of tobacco products is still part of your day, you need to reconsider your career choice. You should already know that tobacco products cause cancer. On top of that, you are sure to inhale plenty of particulate matter from your truck's exhaust — in addition to a wider array of general nastiness — during a typical shift.

Photo Claire Kozower

Photo Claire Kozower

Therefore, possessing a sub-par lung capacity in a career that calls for rapid use of physical force and severe bouts of anaerobic work (lifting/carrying/firefighting) seems a little stupid. Your diminished work capacity makes you a risk not only to yourself, but to your crew as well.

2) Get active
Fitness is a lifestyle. It is not a trend, but a way of thinking and a way of life. Living a healthy and wellness-based existence takes consistency and perseverance. It costs a lot less to be healthy than it does to be sick, so take some time every day to fit in just a few minutes of exercise.

Stretching, weight training, active games, and cardiovascular exercise need to become an integral part of your day, particularly during your shift. Please go back and read the archives of First in Fitness, in which you will find plenty of tips and ideas for being active, especially on duty. Let's face it — do you know of any other job where you can get paid to exercise, and in uniform? It's been established that we have a rigorous job, so it pays to be prepared both mentally and physically.

3) Eat a heart-healthy diet
It never ceases to amaze me how much confusion surrounds a healthy diet. There is so much erroneous information out there that most responders are just confused or misinformed about food. I would therefore like to share a few simple rules to clear up the confusion:

     a) Control your portion size. If it’s bigger than the size of your fist, then it’s too big. This goes for each item on your plate.

     b) Beware the white evils. These lovelies include bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, and sugar. Instead, substitute whole grain and unprocessed foods. Remember that the darker the food (white potato vs. sweet potato), the healthier it is.

     c) Green is good. This goes for food and the environment. Green leafy veggies are loaded with antioxidants, so choose these instead of starches with your meals.

     d) Beware of prepared foods. Commercially produced foods are loaded with sodium, fats, and sugars. It is much healthier to prepare your own meals. If you choose to eat out, be vigilant about the ingredients you are putting in your body, especially when indulging in fast food.

4) Maintain a healthy weight
As we age, our metabolism naturally slows. Add a sedentary lifestyle, poor diet, and a higher-than-average body fat percentage to the mix and you are suddenly heading down a dangerous road. You would think that the community of health care professionals — responding to obese patients and observing the ensuing heart disease and diabetes diagnoses — would not possess a single overweight employee. However, reality shows us otherwise. Make a conscious effort to follow a healthy, portion-controlled diet and exercise plan, and your weight will take care of itself.

5) Get regular health screenings
Most Americans do not get physicals! This is why high blood pressure — also known as the "silent killer" — often goes undiagnosed and unnoticed. An annual physical with blood work will prevent countless medical conditions from occurring or getting worse, but we do have to find them before they can be fixed. And let’s take this one step further.

You should make it an absolute priority to get a regular biomechanical analysis. When was the last time someone assessed your mechanics, tested your active and passive flexibility, and screened you for movement flaws that cause injury? You probably said never, and that is unfortunate. A yearly movement screening will be able to confirm any mechanical imbalances or range of motion limitations, both of which are among the leading causes of injury.

Protect yourself. Your safety, health and survival are your responsibility. Be safe, stay fit, and by all means stay ahead of the curve, because it is a lot easier to stay healthy and injury-free than it is to regain lost fitness.

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