Firefighters favoring fitness, fighting fat

Firefighters favoring fitness, fighting fat

Firefighters from two departments- one in Pennsylvania, the other in Florida-have recently participated in university-run programs designed to help them learn to eat smarter and achieve physical fitness.

In Hershey, Pennsylvania, the country’s chocolate capitol, firefighters were evaluated for fitness at Penn State’s University Hospital/Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

“We needed to see where we were physically,” says Rich Schreffler, a Hershey paramedic who coordinated the department’s involvement in the program. “We already knew what our firefighting abilities were.”

Each participant from the volunteer department received a nutritional evaluation, bloodwork, strength and flexibility tests, and a fitness evaluation. A doctor assessed the results for potential health problems.

Deb Tregea, the exercise physiologist who worked with the firefighters, says the problems common to most of the group involved low’ aerobic capacity and lower back weakness.

“Most weren’t in terrible shape aerobically, but they weren’t in terrific shape, either,” says Tregea. “For the most part, they’re fairly typical American men.”

In Florida, five firefighters from the Metro-Dade Fire Department participated in a firefighter health program conducted by the University of Miami School of Medicine’s Department of Epidemiology and Public Health.

Those five now teach other firefighters in their department what they’ve learned: how elevated cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, excess dietary fats, physical inactivity, and smoking are related to heart disease and cancer.

Classes are voluntary, says Charles L. Young, one of the original five, and firefighters-especially those who are overweight-want to make a change for the better. That means walking, running, or bicycling to increase aerobic capacity, and switching from eggs and bacon to cereal with low-fat milk.

Young, 37, has benefitted from the training. At the beginning, his cholesterol level was 274, with 200 being an acceptable level. The firefighter changed his eating habits (too much red meat, he says) and started running. He brought his cholesterol level down to 194 in three months and has lost about 20 pounds.

The Miami program has been so successful that the Florida legislature has appropriated S240,000 to fund the first year of a state-wide version. Selected firefighters, police officers, and paramedics will go to the university for training; they will in turn train their department members through a series of 20-hour programs.

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