Optimizing firefighter wellness by finding equilibrium between food and fitness
By Dr. Donnie Hutchinson
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. The initiative was started in 1949 to raise awareness of mental and behavioral health issues that affect individuals, families, co-workers, and employers. The emphasis is on discovering prevention methods, early interventions, and treatments. One such method worth looking into is the relationships healthy eating and regular exercise have on mental health.
Mental health concerns for firefighters are significantly greater than the general population. Less than one in five people suffer from mental health issues in the general population and the fire service industry rates of mental health issues are significantly higher.1 The intent of this article is to focus on how a balanced diet and regular exercise can positively influence mental health and work-life balance (WLB).
It might seem a bit odd to believe that what we eat has an impact on our emotional and behavioral state. However, the science is very clear on the mental health impacts of a balanced diet versus one that overindulges in carbohydrates, fats, and sugars. For example, a recent study published by Nutritional Neuroscience on diet and mental health showed a Mediterranean diet had a significant positive impact on mood, emotion, and behavior.2 A similar study showed an unhealthy diet of excess starch and sugars produced an increase in depression symptoms.3
To bring the science to life, I asked a few well known and respected leaders in firefighters’ physical and mental health education to share real-world examples on the nutrition and exercise initiatives that are happening in various departments.
Chief Dan Kerrigan4
When it comes to overall firefighter health and wellness (and everyone else’s, for that matter), a balanced approach works best. With our wellness, lack of attention to proper nutrition can have a negative effect on our mental health because we can easily develop feelings of guilt or shame for things like being overweight or developing health issues such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and high cholesterol. All of these are serious risk factors (especially in firefighters), and they can easily cause a firefighter to lose confidence or become depressed unless these issues are addressed. We simply cannot expect to stay healthy by merely focusing on an exercise routine, and the short-term pleasure derived from “comfort foods” eaten on a regular basis or out of convenience will quickly be overtaken by both physical and mental barriers to our health that can become exponentially more difficult to resolve the longer they are left unaddressed. The best approach when it comes to nutrition is to lead a lifestyle of moderation rather than overindulgence and to focus on food as fuel in place of subscribing to fad diets. The right food, from the right sources, in the right amounts will always benefit you the most.
Like the old saying, “You are what you eat,” I know when I was either getting run down or stressing at work going from call to call, I would walk into the kitchen and be a raptor. Shoving whatever I saw into my mouth and drinking several cups of coffee. Ten minutes later I would be like: “Why do I feel like this—jumpy, tired, and uncomfortable?” Now when I am hungry or have a break, I am intentional when I walk into the kitchen, be aware of what I am thinking, feeling, and how I want to feel. Sometimes I will walk in and out of the kitchen several times before deciding. This helps me make a rational decision rather than an immediate one.
From an overall standpoint I have seen, heard, and encouraged healthy eating in firehouses all across the country. Meals used to be beef and chicken, and the only fish we had were fish sticks, which I don’t think are actual fish. Instead of starches we are eating salads, greens, and vegetables. Like many traditions in the fire service, this has been a slow, but steady process. I believe with the fire service leaders addressing cancer and mental health, more attention has been on our intake, both food and drink.
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So rather than firefighters getting up from the table and sitting in chairs and falling asleep, I see them having more energy, willing to work out, and having a sense of accomplishment, which all lifts one’s spirits and sustains a feeling of goodness.
Many of us have experienced the immediate calming effects of exercise on our racing thoughts once we complete a rigorous workout. This is a result of the physiological changes we experience through the brain releasing endorphins and other mind-calming chemicals. The science is again supportive of this statement. For example, a recent study showed exercise appeared to alleviate depression and anxiety symptoms.6 Again, I wanted some real-world perspective and context around the exercise initiatives that are happening in various departments.
Here’s what they had to say:
Chief Todd LeDuc (Ret)7
We know that daily exercise has been linked with significant health benefits such as blood pressure regulation, weight control and the reduction of risk for certain diseases (i.e. cardiac). However, we also know that aerobic exercise of elevating the resting heart rate and sustaining it for a period of time releases certain chemicals within the brain’s neurotransmitters that provide an elevated effect on mood and overall mental wellness.
Chief Dan Kerrigan4
Everything is connected. Regular exercise has been proven to improve mental health (as much as the lack thereof can result in the opposite effect). Perhaps some of the most important benefits from exercise include the fact that you will get more restful sleep (resulting in better mental acuity and more energy), the release of endorphins that give you a general feeling of happiness, an increase in the concentration of norepinephrine that helps improves your body’s response to stress, and a potential decrease in anxiety. Aside from any scientific study or data proving the benefits of regular exercise, it’s quite possible that the most beneficial result will come simply from the way that you feel from the inside out, knowing that you refuse to live a sedentary lifestyle and have not only improved your own health, but also set a positive example to all those family members, friends, and coworkers around you.
WLB and mental health have a bidirectional relationship: What is good for one is good for the other. Mental health, along with our physical, social, and spiritual health are the four foundational structures of creating a balanced life.8 In other words, how well we manage our self-care is critical to how healthy of a balanced life we can live. How well we align our day-to-day behaviors with our priorities in life has been my definition of balance for many years. It appears to be a given that we should prioritize keeping our mind, body, and spirit healthy so we can be in the best position to serve our communities and love our families.
We cannot change the past. We live in the present and we can predict the future by what we choose to do today. You might be asking yourself, “When is the best time to start taking steps to improve my nutrition and exercise?” As the great philosopher Jimmy Buffett sings, “According to my watch the time is now.”
- Jahnke, Sara A, et al. “Firefighting and Mental Health: Experiences of Repeated Exposure to Trauma.” Work, vol. 53, no. 4, Apr. 2016, pp 737-744. EBSCOhost, doi: 10.3233/WOR-162255.
- Parletta, Natalie, et al. “A Mediterranean-Style Dietary Intervention Supplemented with Fish Oil Improves Diet Quality and Mental Health in People with Depression: A Randomized Controlled Trial (HELFIMED).” Nutritional Neuroscience, vol. 22 no. 7, July 2019, pp. 474-487. EBSCOhost, doi.10.1080/1028415X.2017.1411320.
- Jacka, Felice N., et al. “Food Policies for Physical and Mental Health.” BMC Psychiatry, vol. 14, May 2014, p. 132. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1186/1471-244X-132.
- Kerrigan, Dan. “Re: Will You Contribute to My Article Please.” Message to Donnie Hutchinson. 9 May 2020. E-mail.
- DeGryse, Dan. “Re: Will You Contribute To My Article Please.” Message to Donnie Hutchinson. 11 May 2020. E-mail.
- Weir, K. (2011, December). The exercise effect. Monitor on Psychology, 42(11). http://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/12/exercise
- LeDuc, Todd. “Re: Will You Contribute To My Article Please.” Message to Donnie Hutchinson. 9 May 2020. E-mail.
- Hutchinson Jr, Donald L. Work-Life Balance Attributes of Self-Care with Authentic Leaders: A Multiple Case Study. Diss. University of Phoenix, 2019.
Dr. Donnie Hutchinson is national work-life balance speaker who has presented every year since 2017 at the (IAFF/ALTS) annual conferences. He has delivered many workshops for firefighter health and wellness seminars, EMS, local fire districts, and state organizations. His Work-Life Balance Through Effective Self-Care workshops are available in person or through Zoom. He’s a personal life coach on work-life balance along with being a professor at the University of Dayton teaching leadership courses in the MBA school. He is the author of two books on work-life balance. Find out more at www.donniehutchinson.com