Personal Victory, Public Effect

By Michael Krueger

You are a firefighter. It doesn’t matter whether volunteer or career. When the call comes, you go. Usually, everyone comes back. Occasionally, someone doesn’t. You don’t want that firefighter to be you.

A cursory glance at the recommendations of the National Fire Protection Association and International Association of Fire Chiefs shows that much of the fire service thinking is in the vanguard of fitness, health, safety, injury prevention, and rehabilitation. Unfortunately, many of these recommendations are not implemented and the standards are not adhered to on the departmental level.

What can the average firefighter do to improve this situation?

Steps to Personal Change

The genesis of any change is to simply begin. Make an honest evaluation of where you are right now regarding your health habits, including strength and conditioning, nutrition, tobacco use (this includes the smokeless), stress, and overall lifestyle. Taking the initiative by implementing changes you deem necessary gives you a much improved chance of succeeding than if you wait for changes to be forced on you through illness, injury, or job requirements. Being proactive gives you the advantage of choosing your path to the ultimate goal.

So what is the ultimate goal? The goal is to be fit and healthy enough so that you may have a long, exemplary career as a firefighter and live to tell long, rambling stories about it when you are old and gray. With this goal in mind, you need to begin charting a path to get you there.

 

Get Moving

For starters, get a comprehensive physical, simply to make sure you don’t have a health issue that needs immediate attention. If you are like the average American, you may find your blood pressure is slightly elevated, your cholesterol is higher than you would like it to be, your blood sugar may be up a bit, you are overweight, and you have too much stress in your life. This group of symptoms is known anecdotally as “industrial disease,” and it very common and treatable. This is not to be confused with metabolic syndrome, which is industrial disease taken to the next level. Metabolic syndrome is potentially a very dangerous situation and should be addressed in an aggressive manner before it is too late.

These signs and symptoms are primarily the product of a sedentary lifestyle, so simply speaking the treatment is to get moving. You may feel you are getting sufficient activity through your job; this isn’t true even if you are very active during your day. Hard work is different from exercise. Work wears you down, whereas exercise builds you up. Exercise can address weaknesses and imbalances that may be exacerbated or even caused by your job actions. Aside from increasing activity–going for a walk, for example, which can be a wonderful stress reducer–you need to get some structured exercise.

Cardiovascular (CV) health is somewhat dependent on continuously controlled stress on the heart and lungs. This is attained through running, swimming, biking, or stair climbing, to name the top few activities of this sort. People who are not intrinsic exercisers are generally quite loath to do this type of activity because it is hard, boring, and tiring–no argument there, but it still needs to be done. Most people start out too hard and too fast for their current level of conditioning. If you start too fast, you will enter into a state of overtraining very quickly, and you will probably quit before you’ve even given your body a fair chance to adapt. Currently, interval training is getting a lot of press. This is an excellent choice to improve your CV system, but it is not easy. Consult someone you trust to set you up with a program that will eventually get you to your goal. It should be hard and challenging, but it shouldn’t hurt.

 

Muscle Up!

Generally speaking, most people are a little more amenable to strength training than CV training. It isn’t a continuous linear activity like running, so you get short breaks to spike a little recovery. There are many options for improving your muscular strength and endurance and, like CV training, you may try any number of protocols before finding one you are willing to regularly participate in and which works for you.

Keep in mind the goal of strength training is to get stronger, not necessarily bigger. Your genetics and nutrition will play a huge role in how your body responds to strength training. You may find that hypertrophic changes occur easily for you, or you may find your strength increasing without an appreciable increase in muscle size or body mass. Increased muscle size comes with increased caloric intake as well as targeted workouts. Women as well as men should generally not be concerned with getting “too big”; only a small percentage of the population could become “natural” competitive bodybuilders (natural denotes a bodybuilder that doesn’t use anabolic steroids).

The strength demands of firefighting can be intense, so the better prepared you are, the more effective you will be. When choosing the protocol you are going to use to train, you will be bombarded with information from a myriad of sources, from “muscle magazines” to the biggest guy at the station. When it comes to choosing, it comes down to good, better, and best; but the answer isn’t quite what you think. The “best” program is the one you are willing to work at hard and consistently and will give you the results you are looking for.

 

Everyone Wins

When it comes to being fit and healthy, everyone benefits: the department, fellow firefighters, the community, your family, and most of all you.

There are obvious benefits such as improved health, fat loss, muscle gain, and improved strength and conditioning, but there are intangibles as well. Your outlook and attitude will improve when you feel better about yourself and what you are doing. People will respond in kind when you project a positive, optimistic attitude.

Mental health improvements often go hand in hand with physical fitness improvements, and they occur with little additional effort on your part. You and everyone you encounter, at home and on the job, will benefit from this new and improved you.

 

People Problems

As with any opportunity for change, there may be individuals who choose not to get with the program. This isn’t your problem. You have chosen to make changes in your life to be a better firefighter. That doesn’t mean everyone else will follow suit.

It should be obvious to all members of your department that being a fit, healthy, and strong firefighter is the best possible situation. Nonetheless, a few will be apathetic, and a few more will be openly hostile toward you and what you are doing. This is a fact of life and something you will have to deal with.

It may help to understand where they are coming from. They may feel they are fine just the way they are, and no improvements are needed. Perhaps they have always hated exercise and react negatively to someone who enjoys it. They may have an underlying health issue no one else is aware of, and they are afraid of losing their job if it comes to light. Some people are just afraid of change and react badly to it.

If you are questioned, teased, or mocked, calmly explain why you are making the changes you are making, or just ignore your antagonists. Understand that their acceptance of what you are doing is not necessary for your ultimate success. Making the effort to understand why they are the way they are won’t get them to change, but at least you will know their mindset has nothing to do with you or what you are doing; their attitude is their choice.

Create a Culture

You will find many like-minded individuals in and out of the department who are working toward goals similar to yours. These are the people to focus your energy on. Your combined efforts will create an effect greater than the sum of the parts.

We are a tribal people–we like to be with those who have similar values and interests. When you find others who are focused on health, fitness, and being the best they can be, you will begin creating a supportive community that will share information, encouragement, and a positive energy that will help you through any tough spots you may encounter.

If you assist those who ask for help and ask for help when you need it, you will begin to develop relationships based on mutual respect which will grow and prosper over time. Like-minded individuals will continue to be drawn to you and your department, providing enthusiasm and new ideas, building on the success that has come before.

Continue to Learn

It is important to continue to educate yourself in all aspects of your life, professionally and personally. The more you are aware of new techniques and ideas, the more likely you are to continue to grow and change with relative ease. Flexibility isn’t just for muscles; your mind needs it too.

Firefighting is constantly evolving, and you must evolve with it. Stay abreast of advances in tactics and equipment. Philosophies and approaches change and improve over time, and adopting these changes can increase your chances of survival and the survival of those you serve.

When it comes to maintaining enthusiasm for health and fitness, try new things. Participate in a sport, teach someone what you have learned, and be a good example. Try volunteering to teach kids about the joys of health and fitness. Children respect firefighters above all other public service personnel. Use that admiration to help them develop better habits to create a mentally, emotionally, and physically healthier community.

The health and fitness decisions you make today will affect the rest of your life. Make that effect positive.

Michael Krueger is an independent personal trainer in Madison, Wisconsin. He is certified by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He received his introduction to fitness training while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. He has provided nutrition and fitness training to the Fitchburg (WI) Fire Department based on his understanding of the risks and demands involved in firefighting, which he had gained though his military experience. He was a guest speaker at the FRI 2009 Conference in Dallas.

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