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.
What can the average firefighter do to improve this situation?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
ALSO BY MICHAEL KRUEGER
- Leading the Way to a Fitter Department
- All I Could Do? Fit to Fight Fires
- Firefighter Fitness at the Forefront