Heart Health: 'Talk-test' your way to personal fitness



Editor's note: Wednesday's spotlight in National Firefighter Health Week falls on heart health. With heart attacks the number one cause of firefighter on-duty deaths, Fabio Comana, who worked as an advisor for the NVFC's Health and Wellness Guide, outlines a basic fitness program that can help lower your risk of developing cardiac problems.   

By Fabio Comana
Research scientist and exercise physiologist
American Council on Exercise

AP Photo/Mike Derer
A firefighter in Cranford, N.J., undergoes a fitness check last year. The NVFC recommends firefighters schedule annual physicals with their doctor.

Many firefighters, like civilians, have underlying heart disease. Sudden and extreme exertion and exposure to toxic environments can trigger heart attacks. While career firefighters are typically more fit and healthy than civilians, 70 percent of firefighters are volunteers.

Volunteer firefighters are generally older and less active than their full-time counterparts, which potentially increases their risk for heart disease.

It's common knowledge that a healthy diet and regular exercise reduces the risk of heart disease, but many firefighters and departments lack the resources, capabilities or know how to implement effective programs. However, despite the absence of such resources or expertise, you can still take your own steps to help reduce the risk of heart disease

First, you should always consult with your primary care provider to assess your risks of participating in physical activity if you are not currently active. Annual department-wide medical examinations or individual physicals are an effective means to screen for risk factors.

While the U.S. Surgeon General's recommendation for a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most, if not all days of the week reduces the risk for morbidity and mortality, it is insufficient for firefighters. Given the on-duty demands of firefighting, firefighters must participate in greater intensities of exercise to better condition themselves.

The CPAT is a fair and valid evaluation of the physical abilities needed to perform the critical tasks of a firefighter. An assessment of the energy pathways utilized in this test reveals a strong reliance on both the aerobic and anaerobic energy pathways.

• The aerobic pathway is primarily associated with cardio respiratory efficiency, weight loss and heart health, and utilizes both the abundant fat stores and limited carbohydrate stores within our bodies as a fuel source.
• The anaerobic pathways are associated with higher-intensity, shorter-duration exercise and utilize the limited carbohydrate stores within our body as a fuel source.

Both of these are crucial to job performance and traditional training guidelines recommend building an aerobic base before progressing to training the anaerobic pathways. This generally involves a program of longer-duration, lower-intensity, steady-state exercise or endurance (aerobic) intervals before progressing to higher-intensity, shorter-duration, interval-type training.

Most programming guidelines recommend exercising at a percentage of maximal heart rate (MHR), with MHR derived from a mathematical calculation. Unfortunately, these calculations demonstrate significant standard deviations.

Individualized markers

Common chores

Even everyday tasks can help you get fit, according to the NVFC. Examples of moderate amounts of physical activity include:
  • Washing and waxing a car for 45-60 minutes
  • Washing windows or floors for 45-60 minutes
  • Gardening for 30-45 minutes
  • Pushing a stroller 1.5 miles in 30 minutes
  • Raking leaves for 30 minutes
  • Walking 2 miles in 30 minutes
  • Stair walking for 15 minutes

NVFC's Heart Health Resources

The ability to lose weight or achieve specific cardio respiratory goals requires specific adaptations to the body's metabolism. As human metabolism is as individually unique as a fingerprint, it should be treated as such. So, rather than use generic mathematical calculations for exercise intensity, we should use individualized metabolic markers to anchor our training programs.

One effective marker is a "talk-test."  This test is exactly as it sounds; the ability to talk during your workout can help you determine how hard you're working.

It is the exercise intensity where your ability to converse continuously for 15 seconds proves challenging, implying it can be done, but it should not require you to gasp for air. Training at this metabolic intensity will:

• Teach the body how to efficiently burn fats, promoting fat loss and potentially reducing the risk of heart disease.
• Minimize possible discomforts associated with over-training, create a more enjoyable exercise experience, reduce the potential for establishing any negative emotional associations with exercise, and help build adherence.

As the body becomes more conditioned, this talk-test marker will shift, allowing you to exercise at greater intensities of exercise and continue to improve both fitness and health. Use this marker as your gauge for exercise intensity each time you exercise over the next three to four weeks, progressively increasing your intensity, building your frequency to three to five times per week and increasing your exercise duration by 5 to10 percent weekly.

After week four, begin to include aerobic or endurance intervals into your training program. This involves using a four to five minute interval at a fixed intensity beyond your current talk-test intensity — after your warm-up — followed by a five to seven minute recovery at an intensity below your current talk-test level. 

Start with two to three intervals initially, gradually progressing the duration of each interval or the intensity of each interval by 5 to 10 percent weekly. This form of training will not only improve cardiorespiratory fitness, but will help facilitate fat loss and improve overall health.

Additionally, aerobic intervals demonstrate some improvements to your anaerobic threshold, the highest sustainable intensity you can tolerate. This is important as it improves your tolerance for higher-intensity, shorter-duration bouts of exercise or activity, ultimately improving your on-duty performance.

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