By Michael Krueger
A simply consistency in an exercise habit will achieve a certain degree of success regardless of the sophistication of the activity. Going for a brisk walk every day for about one mile or 12 minutes’ duration will burn approximately 100 additional calories per day. Over the course of one year, even if you don’t change anything else you are doing, you would lose about 10 pounds.
A sedentary life will kill you. That isn’t hyperbole, either. There is nothing worse for the human body than not moving. You can smoke tobacco and eat excess calories, fat, salt, and sugar, and it won’t do you any good; but still, being sedentary is even worse. There is even some research that says that it isn’t obesity that is the killer but the fact that obese people also tend to be sedentary people. Interesting theory; we’ll have to see where it goes after more peer reviews and additional research, but it does make some sense.
The funny thing about a sedentary lifestyle is that it is so easy to remedy compared to the difficulty involved in dietary changes. When you are “on a diet,” every minute of every day you think about the fact that you aren’t eating something you want to eat. You might suffer through an entire day watching others around you eating whatever they want while you are avoiding all your “forbidden” foods. Then you ruin all that effort in a five-minute binge standing in front of the refrigerator at midnight. But going for a 12-minute walk is over in 12 minutes. Once you are done, you don’t even have to think about it again until tomorrow; then, once again, it is literally done in a matter of minutes.
Metabolically, you function so much better when you incorporate movement into your daily activity. Many of the ailments that threaten our healthcare system are caused or exacerbated by lack of movement. Diabetes, cancer, and heart disease (just to name a few)–things that we spend so much time and money on to treat–are mostly preventable. It has been estimated that if we exercised more, and by that I mean get moving, we could cut the instances of these diseases by more than 75 percent. Imagine what that would do to the healthcare spending debate.
Total deaths among firefighters dropped again last year. This is a very good thing. Unfortunately, 50 of the 83 deaths were from cardiac events–i.e. heart attacks and strokes. These are preventable deaths, pure and simple. While it is true that occasionally someone dies out of the blue of a heart attack, it can usually be traced back to a genetic disorder of some sort. Otherwise, it is from poor preventive maintenance on the victim’s part.
Placing blame is not what this is about. It is instead a cautionary tale. Just as your car will break down and leave you stranded, your body will eventually do the same. But your body breaking down is more like an airplane breaking down: The results tend to be catastrophic and irreversible. When a firefighter dies, it has a ripple effect through the department and the community. To make this event even more tragic, there is always the possibility that when a firefighter goes down he may take someone else with him.
From Sedentary to Dynamic
You wouldn’t think that firefighting would be a sedentary activity but, just like farming, firefighting isn’t as strenuous as it once was. Farmers no longer walk behind horses or carry pails of milk, nor does a firefighter hand pump water onto a fire anymore. Firefighting has become a much more technical, skill-based profession. Because of these advancements, new firefighting recruits spend a lot of time in classrooms and in hands-on training. New recruits must take it on themselves to begin their training in top condition, and as veterans you must stay committed to maintaining it over the course of your career.
Our culture doesn’t place a high value on fitness. We talk a lot about it and lament the overall lack of fitness in our children, but physical education classes are still getting cut in elementary and high schools. I believe this is a short-sighted cost-saving scheme that will end up costing us more in the long run and make our fitness as a nation even poorer than it is now.
But I digress; the bottom line is that everyone, firefight or not, needs to accept that maintaining physical fitness is primarily up to them. As in most things, to guarantee success, there needs to be a strong commitment to this very personal mission.
Nearly every aspect of our lives is now strongly influenced by technology. It is far too easy to forget that without a sound body all the skills in the world won’t do you much good. Even our “sports” are being played in family rooms on large screen televisions with avatars doing most of the work, while we take “breaks” with soft drinks and chips.
Have you noticed that researchers keep lowering the bar for how much exercise is needed to maintain a healthy body? The reason for the regular downgrades is that as people become less fit, an ever lesser amount of exercise is all that’s needed to see some benefit. If you can’t walk a block, then just getting up, out, and moving is going to provide you with a benefit. What sedentary people don’t realize is while exercise certainly benefits your body, it also pays huge dividends when it comes to your mental health.
It’s All in Your Head
Watch someone who is new to exercise. He doesn’t know what to do or, for that matter, how hard to do whatever it is he doesn’t know how to do. There is no question that beginner exercisers or even those who are returning to exercise after a long layoff will go through a period of adjustment that will definitely weed out those who are not focused on success.
The feeling of breathlessness, sore muscles, embarrassment, awkwardness, impatience, and a sense of futility are all normal feelings when beginning and will pass with time. This can be a hard sell when you feel lousy, and the thought of doing all again tomorrow is distasteful.
This is when the rational mind must step in and take control. Your body likes stasis. It doesn’t like change, even when that change is for the better. It has no ability to appreciate expending effort in the moment for a long-term benefit; it can only react and send a message of distress when it is tired and sore. It is up to you to override this message and stay the course.
Just as when you want to eat food that won’t keep you on track for losing the weight you have decided to lose, or build the muscle that you want to build, you must stay focused on your ultimate goal and do what needs to be done. Every time you meet a challenge head on and succeed, you will get mentally stronger. Every time you defeat the temptation to overeat, or skip a workout, you will get tougher. Soon your body and mind will be working in concert, and when this happens it will be beautiful.
It is Up to You
Are you are a long-time firefighter who has maintained your fitness, or have you allowed your fitness slip a bit? Or are you a young new recruit, possibly in the best shape of your life, looking forward to a long career? Perhaps you are a new chief sitting behind a desk for the first time in your career, noticing that your pants have gotten a little snug. It doesn’t matter where you find yourself; you are a firefighter, and you have a responsibility to yourself, your department, and your community to be the best of the best.
Being strong and fit, physically and mentally, is the basis for success in firefighting as well as in life in general. There is nothing better than facing life’s challenges with the knowledge that you are strong enough to win.
Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at [email protected].