First responders are essential in emergencies and should be in top physical shape. However, wellness programs sold to departments by third-party corporations seem to de-emphasize or outright abandon fitness. To ensure a healthy and capable force, this needs to change.
The Stats Speak
We recently ran a survey on fitness within Law Enforcement and Fire. With 494 respondents, the results were clear that fitness levels are low and not prioritized.
- 78% of respondents rate their department’s fitness level as poor or just ok.
- 60% don’t prioritize their personal fitness.
- 42% say their department’s wellness program isn’t effective, and 43% don’t have one at all. Only 15% of respondents believe their fitness/wellness program is effective.
These numbers highlight a problem: despite the demands of their roles, many first responders don’t prioritize fitness and don’t have effective programs in place at the departmental level.
Fitness = Resiliency
It’s widely accepted that a lack of fitness can hamper job performance and increase health risks, like injuries and heart issues. However, wellness programs put an outsized emphasis on topics such as mental health, family resources, etc. These are certainly important services to offer, but the research tying physical fitness and resiliency is well-researched and seems to be overlooked. Both physical and mental aspects of fitness contribute to an individual’s ability to withstand and recover from stressors. For example:
- Physical Fitness and Resilience: Regular physical activity has been found to decrease symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The physiological changes that occur with exercise, such as the release of endorphins, can serve as a natural stress-reliever and mood enhancer. Source: Childs, E., & de Wit, H. (2014). Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults. Frontiers in Physiology, 5, 161.
- Cardiovascular Fitness and Cognitive Resilience: Cardiovascular fitness can have protective effects against the wear and tear that stress places on the brain, especially in regions like the hippocampus. This kind of fitness aids cognitive function and memory, which are essential for coping and recovering from stress. Source: Stern, Y., MacKay-Brandt, A., Lee, S., McKinley, P., McIntyre, K., Razlighi, Q., … & Sloan, R. P. (2019). Effect of aerobic exercise on cognition in younger adults: A randomized clinical trial. Neurology, 92(9), e905-e916.
- Fitness and Emotional Stability: Physical activity is correlated with increased emotional stability. This emotional grounding can be invaluable in navigating life’s challenges and bouncing back from adversities. Source: Netz, Y., Wu, M. J., Becker, B. J., & Tenenbaum, G. (2005). Physical activity and psychological well-being in advanced age: a meta-analysis of intervention studies. Psychology and aging, 20(2), 272.
Regular physical activity and fitness practices not only bolster physical health but also foster mental and emotional strengths that are crucial for navigating and recovering from inevitable adversities stemming from a career in law enforcement or the fire service.
Obstacles to Integration
While the need for fitness programs is clear, departments may face hurdles. These are the common constraints we’ve received:
- Liability Concerns: Departments might worry about potential injuries during fitness training and the subsequent legal implications.
- Budget Restrictions: Allocating funds for fitness equipment, trainers, or facilities can be challenging.
- Resistance to Change: Some personnel might be resistant to new fitness mandates or perceive them as additional work.
- Time Constraints: Fitting in regular fitness routines amidst training, shifts, and emergency calls can be tricky.
Despite these challenges, departments should:
- Conduct Regular Voluntary Fitness Assessments: Those who prioritize fitness will participate. Identify and highlight participation.
- Provide Access and time to Fitness Facilities and First Responder specific programming: This could be on-site gyms or partnerships with local gyms. Allow on-duty time to train if you’re able to. Fitness training is specific to the demands imposed… find someone who can fill that hole, even if it’s not us.
- Offer Nutritional Guidance: This isn’t complicated, and you likely don’t need a dietician. Meat, veggies, fruits, clean carbohydrates.
- Re-evaluate Wellness Programs: Do you see an ROI on your investment? Is limited duty and workers comp down? Is fitness up? Don’t just check the box.
- Introduce Incentives: Reward those who prioritize their fitness.
The demanding nature of first responder roles necessitates a focus on fitness. While there are challenges to integrating comprehensive fitness programs within wellness programs, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
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