Fire Life

Why Firefighters (and Their Spouses) Should Exercise, Part 1

By Anne Gagliano

My husband bought me a treadmill for Christmas. A treadmill, really?  How unromantic and unfun is that?!  I should be offended, even downright hurt (are you suggesting I’m fat?), but the truth is—I’m absolutely delighted. We already have equipment, but we are ever vigilant to increase and update our workout regime for this primary reason: We are a firefighter couple, and exercise is absolutely paramount to our health and to our marriage. It is the last thing that should go—but as is typical of the busy life, it tends to be the first thing to go.

How much exercise is good?  Moderate aerobic exercise for 30 minutes, three days a week is good. Moderate intensity falls in the range of 65 to 75 percent of your maximum heart rate, which is based on the rough formula of 220 minus your age. But how much exercise is best?  According to John J. Ratey, MD, in his book Spark, the optimum benefit of exercise both physically and mentally occurs with an aerobic workout of 45 to 60 minutes, six days a week. Dr. Ratey suggests four days should be longer with moderate intensity, and two days should be shorter with high-intensity, or 75 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate. For a 45-year-old, the theoretical maximum heart rate would be about 175 (220-45). If you calculate 75 percent and 90 percent of your maximum, the lower and upper limits for a high-intensity workout are 131 and 158. On the shorter, high-intensity workout days, adding resistance training maximizes overall fitness. The high-intensity days should not be back to back, as both your brain and your body need recovery time.

If firefighter couples will commit to exercising at least moderately (but hopefully both, as moderate is good but intense is best), they will see the following benefits:     

Exercise makes firefighters fit for duty. Not everyone has to be fit to do their job, but firefighters do. The fitter they are, the better they are. He must be strong. She must be able to lift people. He has to move fast. And she must be able to do this job for a very long time.

Strength training increases muscle strength. Aerobic exercise increases agility. More strength equals greater performance. And more agility means greater likelihood of returning home, injury free.

Movement and stretching remove lactic acid buildup in muscles from exertion, reducing the likelihood of muscle soreness or tears. To be fit for duty, firefighters must exercise. To live long and grow old together, spouses, encourage your firefighter to do this; even better, exercise with them, as it is proven to be more fun to run or walk with a partner. Make it a part of your daily routine, even a bonding time as a couple. Physical fitness also makes you both more attractive–not just fit for duty but fit for passion.

Exercise counters stress. “Unchecked, extreme stress is an emotional and physical carnivore. It chews hungrily on so many of our (officers) with its razor-sharp fangs, and does so quietly, silently in every corner of their lives. It affects their job performance, their relationships and ultimately their health.” –Lt. Col. Dave Grossman

Stress—an emotional and physical carnivore. No-one encounters more stress than a first-responder. They have all the pressures of an office job plus dangerous and traumatic situations. Since stress is such a monster, and so unavoidable, we as firefighter couples must address this issue and learn how best to cope with it—and exercise is ultimately the best answer.

Why is stress so harmful?  The stress response (fight or flight) is actually intended to be a good thing. Stress calls into action the most powerful hormones in the body and scores of neurochemicals in the brain for the purposes of survival. When faced with stress, say a fire or a car wreck or even a personnel conflict, the amygdala sets off a chain reaction. Within 10 milliseconds, the adrenal gland releases norepinephrine and epinephrine (adrenaline) which increases the heart rate and the respiration rate to prepare the body for action.

A third hormone is also released—cortisol. Cortisol thickens the blood, enabling it to clot faster if an injury should occur. This is the good thing that it does, as this will miraculously save the body from bleeding out. Cortisol does other things too. It signals the liver to make more glucose available while at the same time blocking insulin receptors at nonessential tissues and organs. It does this so that the body will receive less glucose and the brain will receive more for the purposes of quick, reflexive thinking. Cortisol simultaneously burns and restocks energy stores by converting proteins into glycogen and begins the process of storing fat, which is most often stored around the belly. If the stress response is triggered but not used (i.e., a false alarm or a personnel conflict), belly fat piles up and muscle tissue breaks down.

Cortisol affects brain function as well by shifting glucose away from the thinking parts of the brain to the limbic or action center of the brain. If continuous or chronic, this can actually starve cognitive areas of the brain and lead to damage, such as short-term memory loss, over- excitability, or the ability to deal with stress in the future. For the firefighter, whose stress is ongoing, all of this seems to be an inescapable hazard of doing business. Firefighters seemed doomed to having trouble concentrating and getting big beer bellies, even if they don’t drink beer.

Enter the miracle of exercise. Exercise actually counters all of the negative side effects of the stress response. Activity fires up the recovery process in our muscles and in our neurons, not only healing the body and mind but making it stronger for future stress. With exercise, the body becomes calm, fit and strong rendering it less easily triggered into the stress-response. See it as an actual inoculation or immunization against stress.

Cortisol makes the brain rigid and less flexible to the point of actually cannibalizing itself. It inhibits serotonin (the peaceful hormone) and slows growth factors which can literally cause the brain to get stuck in negative destructive patterns of thinking. If overtaxed by chronic stress, the brain becomes hyper aroused. Ongoing hyper arousal can eventually cause a break with reality as the mind literally becomes overridden with fear. Chronic stress is a problem for many in our society, including firefighter spouses. We spouses, after all, have to worry about the safety and well-being of our beloved firefighters.

But exercise counters stress for all of us, firefighters and firefighter spouses alike. It increases blood flow and the availability of glucose, which are the two essential ingredients for cell life, enabling the body to keep growing healthy new cells. The plasticity of the brain allows it to mold and change and even rebuild damaged areas, and exercise speeds up this process. And energy production becomes more efficient, as exercise increases the need for fuel in the body without triggering the negatives of cortisol. Without cortisol, your body will burn fat instead of storing it.

In my next column, learn more reasons the firefighter couple should exercise—including depression, hormonal imbalance, sleep issues, addiction, and even disease.


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 30 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.