By Michael Krueger

At one time or another, we have all experienced what I call “Death Initiated Life Reassessment Syndrome.” You know, where you attend a funeral or memorial service and everyone says how this reminds them about that which is truly important, and how it’s people and not things and blah, blah, blah. Then, as they walk to their car, out comes their cell phone, they check for messages, hit a drive-through for fast food on the way back to work, and then stay late to make up for time lost at the funeral…

…so much for a life-altering event.



If asked, you could write down what is really important to you. In all likelihood, at or near the top of the list would be health, friends, and family. Without these three items, most people would feel lost and adrift. A big car or lots of money wouldn’t mean much if you were sick and alone.

I don’t know how you treat your parents/siblings/spouse/kids, but if you are an average American, I do know how you treat your body, and it isn’t very nice. For the most part, we are overweight, underexercised, and overmedicated. We rely on the medical profession to keep us “healthy” while we do everything in our power to be unhealthy. We make poor food choices, are sleep deprived, are sedentary, and are stressed out. We are making the pharmaceutical industry wealthy with our seriously bad habits.

It’s time to strip down and look in the mirror again. What has changed in the past year or so? For most people, the answer is “nothing much.” Despite some good intentions, most Americans have gained a few pounds and sagged a little more, and that’s just on the outside where you can see. Imagine what you look like on the inside. Your arteries have new plaque deposits, your liver is hardening, your joints are developing arthritis, your kidneys are clogging up, and your pancreas is overworked. The sad part is that this is similar to the last time you looked; only now it’s a little worse.

It’s time to take this reassessment seriously and make some changes so that next year when you look in the mirror you will see your teeth because of the big smile on your face.


The Fitness Mindset

In its simplest form, your body is just the vessel in which you go through and experience life and the condition you keep it in is a reflection of your priorities. Many people have been unfit for so long that they don’t even remember what it feels like to be healthy and strong. Other people believe they are “in pretty good shape” until they try and fail to do something that even a few short years ago they were perfectly able to do. Some will chalk it up to the erroneous belief in the “inevitable toll of aging,” while others will rationalize it away by denying the evidence or simply ignoring it. Any way you look at it, you’re standing at the top of a very slippery slope that can only end very badly; does “bright lights and cold steel” mean anything to you?

The fitness mindset is where you believe that it is your duty to be fit. You have been given the gift of life, and with that gift comes a certain obligation. Your body works best when supplied with good fuel, adequate rest, proper maintenance, and sufficient exercise. Once these things are in place, you will feel better than you ever have before, and you will come to understand that fitness is also a part of your birthright. You owe it to yourself to be fit and strong.


The Unnatural Life

We are the only creatures that have manipulated our environment to the point where we can survive while barely using our bodies. We don’t need to fend off animal attacks or throw a spear to kill our lunch. We live in climate controlled buildings, we ride around in self-propelled vehicles, and our hunting and gathering are done in a supermarket or a restaurant.

We are suffering from a combination of our success as a technical/industrial society together with a failure to maintain a relationship with our more physical primitive past. It’s a syndrome consisting of physical and mental problems created by a disconnect with our more basic nature. We don’t “earn” our food anymore. We simply consume vast amounts of calories because they are easily available, and because of this glut our society has found the “need” to create calorie-free “food.” We feel that we don’t need strength or endurance to stay alive; after all, nothing is chasing us, and we aren’t chasing anything.

Exercise fills that void. Our muscles, bones, and organs are made to be used on a regular basis in a way that contributes to our survival. If our environment doesn’t provide that stimulation, we must artificially create it. That is where cardiovascular and strength training come into play.


The Obvious Solution

The solution to all of our physical (and mental) distress is and always has been obvious. We need to eat natural foods, and we need movement and activity; we need to use our body the way it was intended.

Packing away fat is our way of preparing for a famine, but here in America there isn’t a major threat of that. There are dozens upon dozens of studies about why we are fat. There are more than enough theories to make everyone crazy. The bottom line is we eat too much and do too little. That isn’t the most popular conclusion because it all goes back to personal responsibility; but, unfortunately, that is where the buck stops.

When it comes to food, we need to eat unprocessed whole grains; fiber; lean meats; and nutrient-rich fruits, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. As for exercise, we need to build muscle, because muscle makes us move and movement is life. We need to run and swim and hike to strengthen our heart and lungs. Exercise performs all sorts of wonderful metabolic magic and helps us to efficiently convert our food to energy and eliminate waste products.

Our bodies function best when used. They will “rust out” from inactivity and will thrive on movement. Our brains are the same; without physical activity they can’t function properly. Our brain is the biggest consumer of glucose we have, and a healthy body running on quality fuel will help our brain to operate at the peak of efficiency.

As a firefighter, you need a strong and healthy body. You need a sharp and active mind. You need to eat well and exercise regularly to achieve these goals. These are your personal responsibilities. No one can do it for you, and no one can force you to do it; your failure or success is entirely dependent on the action you take.


When It’s Over

There is nothing like someone close to you dying to make you feel mortal, small, and vulnerable. It’s something we all must face eventually. In the best case, it’s the inevitable end to a long and fruitful life. Sometimes, though, it just seems senseless and random, while other times it’s the sad but logical conclusion to a long string of very bad decisions. Whatever the cause, the end result is the same.

As firefighters, you understand this; it is part of the job. When one of your brothers or sisters goes down, you feel the pain. It doesn’t matter how or where in the world it happened; you take it personally.

So, today, look in your mirror, look around your department, observe the level of commitment to health and fitness that is on display…

…and take it personally.


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 MKPTLLC@gmail.

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