Why Firefighters (and Their Spouses) Should Exercise, Part 3

By Anne Gagliano

Because of the high-stress world of firefighting, we firefighter couples have certain problems that plague us more so than the general population. High stress can lead to depression, anxiety, and attention deficit. But exercise counters these problems in the healthiest way possible, as was covered in Parts 1 and 2. Here are even more reasons firefighters and their spouses should exercise:

Exercise helps cure addiction. High stress can cause chemical imbalances that lead to depression and anxiety. Because of this, firefighters are more vulnerable to addiction than the general population. In an effort to cope, they can often choose the wrong medicine.

Alcohol, drugs, food (especially carbs), video games, gambling, and shopping all have the same biological effect—they stimulate the nucleus accumbens, or the reward center of the brain. These addictions (as well as sex and nicotine) accomplish this stimulation by boosting dopamine levels in the reward center, which makes us “feel good.”  Raised dopamine levels lead to “cravings” for more and more—and this is how addiction is born.

Sex, for example, raises dopamine levels 50 to 100 percent, which is a healthy increase. Cocaine, on the other hand, raises dopamine levels 300 to 800 percent—an unhealthy increase. If raised to unnatural extremes, dopamine receptors become damaged over time and the activity must be increased to get the same feeling as before. Abuse of dopamine can also actually shrink gray matter, which is responsible for self-control. The addiction then becomes “reflexive,” overriding the thought process.

For the firefighter, stress itself can become an addiction. The “stress junkie” gets a burst of cortisol, which also quickly raises dopamine levels to induce pleasure. But stress, as any other drug, quickly causes an imbalance. It gets harder and harder for the “stress junkies” to find enjoyment in day-to-day life as their threshold for excitement grows higher and higher.

For any addict, sudden withdrawal is extremely tough, even dangerous. It tricks the body into “survival mode” in which it literally cries out for more dopamine, and this can be overwhelming, even crippling. If dopamine is not made present by some other means, addicts will almost certainly relapse.

Since addiction is so powerful, how can we ever fight it?  We can fight it with exercise. Exercise is not only the antidote but the inoculation against future relapse. Exercise raises dopamine levels the same way that addictions do—but to natural, healthy levels. It also re-grows gray matter, the area of the brain that helps gain self-control.

Addictions form “superhighways” in our brains—the quickest routes to pleasure. Habits are formed. But exercise helps build synaptic detours around these well-worn connections, enabling the addict to find alternate routes to reward. Thus, better habits can be formed.

Just 10 minutes of exercise has been shown to curb an alcoholic’s craving. Just five minutes can help smokers fend off nicotine cravings for up to 50 minutes. Dopamine produced during exercise blunts cravings and produces more dopamine receptors, which allow the body to absorb it more quickly. Exercise actually restores the body’s natural levels, which brings balance to the reward center of the brain thrown off by addictions. It strengthens self-control and curbs cravings at the same time.

Exercise helps the firefighter sleep. Nothing is more healing to the highly stressed out than a good night’s sleep. But for the firefighter, often full of adrenaline and cortisol, sleep can be elusive.

Only exercise is effective in burning off stress hormones. Intense aerobic activity for up to 60 minutes during the day is best. Yoga or stretching before bed is also highly effective, as it releases lactic acid and ammonia buildup in muscles that causes tightness. Exercise and stretching also raise dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine levels, the three “feel-good” neurotransmitters that counter anxiety. With a more peaceful, easy feeling—the firefighter will sleep.

Exercise helps fight disease. Stress is damaging to our health. The stress hormone cortisol clamps down on the immune system, which, if chronic, can actually lead to the deadliest of diseases—including cancer.

Stress and inactivity have also been linked to arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and other autoimmune disorders.

Hypercortisolism, or too much cortisol in the system, causes weight gain in the form of belly fat, which is more dangerous than fat stored elsewhere, as it can lead to heart disease. And cortisol produces unnecessary glucose and damages insulin receptors, causing a metabolic imbalance that can lead to diabetes.

With this grim prognosis of high stress, let’s look again at the beauty of exercise, a simple way to prevent some pretty serious illnesses. Exercise optimizes energy usage by triggering the production of more receptors of insulin, which means better use of blood glucose and stronger cells. Lower blood glucose means less diabetes, and healthier cells mean less disease.

A study was done on a man with a rare type of cancer. He started running to combat the depression that set in. To the astonishment of his doctors, after five years of running, he was completely cancer free. No one has said to date that exercise actually cures cancer, but evidence is mounting to support this possibility. Doctors are now recommending exercise to their cancer patients as part of their treatment (as it also counters depression).

Studies have shown that women who do not exercise have an increased risk for developing breast cancer. Both men and women who exercise regularly have a 50 percent less chance of getting colon cancer. And active men over age 65 have a 70 percent lower chance of developing the advanced, fatal form of prostate cancer. Firefighters are prone to these three types of cancer.

And exercise is doubly good for the heart, as it increases cardiovascular strength and it burns off cortisol, which increases belly fat.

Exercise strengthens the firefighter marriage. This is perhaps the best reason of all to exercise; it can help save even the most troubled of marriages.

Exercise counters depression and anxiety–relationship killers. And it does this without bringing the sexual dysfunction caused by antidepressants, another relationship killer.

Exercise strengthens mental acuity—the enemy of motivation and productivity. A couple that is highly functioning is highly happy.

Exercise helps cure addictions, which can become all-consuming, even to the exclusion of marriage and family.

And exercise makes the firefighter fit for duty and helps him better fight the diseases that threaten to keep him from growing old—with the one he loves.


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.

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