10 best heart health practices for female firefighters

Research has shown that firefighters and EMTs face special risks of cardiac disease and stroke; here are 10 ways to lessen your risk

The first Friday of each February is reserved for National Wear Red Day for Women. The day's mission is to bring attention to the leading killers of women – heart disease and stroke. In the fire and EMS service, this idea shouldn't just be reserved for one day.

Heart disease is a major killer of both men and women in the United States. Increased awareness of risk factors and risk factor reduction are pivotal in decreasing cardiovascular deaths. According to the American Heart Association, more women than men have strokes each year. Hormones, pregnancies, childbirth and other gender-specific factors put women at a higher risk.

And research has shown that female firefighters and EMTs, along with their male counterparts, face special risks of cardiac disease and stroke. The International Association of Fire Fighters released a heart disease manual, including evidence on why responders may be at an increased risk for developing heart disease, factors that increase their risk and what can be done to prevent heart disease.

Heart disease is a major killer of both men and women in the United States.
Heart disease is a major killer of both men and women in the United States. (Photo/Getty Images)

Here are 10 best heart health practices for female firefighters and EMTs to keep in mind both on and off duty.

1. Physical activity

For some responders, working out is the last thing on their mind after a long shift. After all, firefighters' jobs are physically demanding. The IAFF study found that regular aerobic activity and muscle-strengthening exercises are necessary for primary and secondary prevention of heart disease. Regular exercise has a direct correlation for changes in body weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, glucose, mood and cardiovascular fitness.

2. Wellness at work

In-house fitness and wellness programs offer an additional prevention opportunity. The Augusta (Ga.) Fire Department began a mandatory wellness program in 2014, which requires every firefighter to work out at least one hour per day while on duty. A fitness and wellness program, according to the IAFF study, should emphasize healthy diets, regular exercise and good sleep habits.

3. Get some sleep

Yes, that's easier said than done. For both career and volunteer firefighters and EMTs, tones going off in the middle of the night are quality sleep killers. Getting the proper amount of sleep is important to maintaining a healthy weight, a key factor in heart health. Short sleep and shift work can affect metabolism and weight.

4. Consume more fresh foods, fewer processed foods

We all know that a healthy diet is important. Nonetheless, it's an important component of preventing heart disease. You can achieve a healthier diet by eating more home-prepared foods and less processed foods, purchasing or ordering foods that are low in sodium and reading Nutrition Facts labels.

5. Lower stress levels

Again, easier said than done. Excessive stress can lead to increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure and sleep disturbance. There are many causes of work stressors in fire and EMS that can contribute to unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, excessive eating or increased alcohol consumption. Firefighters and EMS providers are also exposed to extreme stressors that can develop into post-traumatic stress disorder. It may not always be possible to immediately address the source of your stress, but there are preventive steps, such as identifying the cause and knowing when to ask for help, that can be taken. Regular exercise is a good short-term stress reducer.

6. Focus on blood pressure

High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease. Left untreated, elevated blood pressure can damage your brain, kidneys and eyes. Regular exercise, moderation of alcohol and sodium consumption, maintaining a healthy weight, being a non-smoker and eating a healthy diet have all been shown to lower blood pressure. Be sure to check your blood pressure periodically and treat it through medication if it's continually high.

7. Don't smoke

According to the American Stroke Association, strokes are more common in women who smoke. On average, male smokers die 13.2 years earlier than male non-smokers, and female smokers die 14.5 years earlier than female non-smokers.

8. Get normal check-ups

No one likes going to the doctor, but it's essential in maintaining and monitoring your health. Atrial fibrillation quadruples stroke risk and is more common in women than men. The American Stroke Association recommends that all women, especially those over the age of 75, should be screened for atrial fibrillation. See your doctor if you feel your heart racing, skipping beats or acting differently.

9. Don't dismiss headaches

Women are four times more likely to get migraines than men. There is an association between higher migraine frequency and stroke risk. Tell your doctor about your migraines if you haven't already.

10. Spread the word

This February marks 18 years since the creation of National Wear Red Day. And during that time, the organization has achieved outstanding results. In raising awareness, they've helped more than 90% of women make at least one healthy behavior change, more than 50% have increased their exercise, six out of 10 women have changed their diets and more than one-third of women have talked with their doctors about developing heart health plans. Even more impressive, nearly 300 fewer women die from heart disease and stroke each day.

You don't have to wear red to spread the word. Talk with your colleagues during dinner. Tell the rookies to swap their trip through the fast-food drive-thru with a walk down the produce aisle and to remain vigilant in staying healthy.

How are you lowering your risk for heart disease and stroke? Leave your suggestions in the comments below.

This article, originally published Feb. 2, 2017, has been updated.

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