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Making fitness a priority as a first responder

As “tactical athletes,” responders should focus on whole-body fitness to enhance their job performance

Fit man checking his fitness tracker during a park run

When you fail to steward your physical health, your body isn’t prepared to handle the rigors of a public safety career.

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Everyone knows fitness is important. It’s not a secret. But in practice, fitness often falls through the cracks. Between shift work and overtime, family responsibilities, and everything else life throws your way, getting in a workout isn’t exactly easy. For many, fitness is one of the first things neglected when life gets busy and time is scarce. But when you fail to steward your physical health, your body isn’t prepared to handle the rigors of a public safety career. And beyond just the on-the-job challenges, your personal life is negatively impacted by inadequate fitness as well, whether in limiting your energy and ability to engage in activities with your family or resulting in chronic pain during and after your career.

So, what can you do? With little time (and sometimes, little motivation), prioritizing fitness can seem a daunting task. Where do you start? How do you ensure your fitness efforts are actually taking you in the right direction and making you healthier? In a recent webinar, “Evidence-Proven Strategies to Outsmart Exhaustion and Become a Fitter, More Resilient First Responder,” Lexipol Strategic Wellness Director Mandy Nice discusses how first responders can make fitness a priority with Dr. Brent Alvar, Dr. Robert Lockie, Dr. Jay Dawes, Joe Dulla and Dr. Rob Orr.

Making time

Time is often the top reason people cite for their lack of exercise. For first responders, this is completely understandable. With odd working hours due to shift work and mandatory or voluntary overtime coupled with typical family and personal responsibilities, there never seem to be enough hours in the day. And there certainly doesn’t seem to be enough hours to get in a workout on a daily basis—or even a couple times a week. Or is there?

“It doesn’t have to be a lot to create a meaningful benefit,” Dr. Alvar explains. “Find a mode of exercise, whatever it is, and engage in it.” To see results, whether that be weight loss, muscle gain, increased flexibility, greater endurance, or any other fitness goal, you simply need to be committed and consistent—even if you’re only able to exercise for 15 minutes a day. “Do little things more often,” Dr. Orr says. He offers a few examples: Park your car at the back of the parking lot, always take the stairs, remove the batteries from your TV remote so you always have to get up to change the channel. In short, anything is better than nothing. No matter what it is, find ways to move and incorporate “exercise” into the little things you do each day. Remember, it doesn’t have to be big to be impactful.

Another key piece of advice for building fitness into your life even when time is lacking comes from Nice: “Start with exercises that work major muscle groups…Do full body movements if you don’t have much time.” Determine where you want to get stronger and what impact you want your fitness efforts to have. Whatever small steps you take in your fitness journey should be strategic. Use the time you have wisely to maximize the benefits of the exercise.

Making movement a priority

“The best thing you can do is some form of physical activity,” Dr. Dawes says simply. Getting up and moving when typically confined to stationary positions can do wonders to prevent injuries, reduce chronic back and joint pain, and make you healthier overall. “Posture, posture, posture,” Dr. Alvar emphasizes. “The way that we stand, the way that we sit, the way that we sleep will impact our body mechanics.” Paying attention to way you hold yourself—how your back or neck is curved or how your hips are (or aren’t) aligned—will allow you to determine if posture is the root of any chronic pain. Take care with your movements to encourage healthy alignment and remember to move regularly, rather than staying in any one position for too long.

“The stronger you are, the less likely you are to break or bend inappropriately,” Dr. Alvar continues. But you need to build proper movement habits, including in your strength training. Learn the proper lifting motions and “practice while rested and while fatigued,” Dulla explains. This teaches your body the proper patterns of movement no matter your state of rest. As we know from firearm training, hoseline advancement training or any other training that builds a physical skill, muscle memory is our friend. This rings true when it comes to the movements we incorporate in our fitness routines, too.

Becoming a tactical athlete

Newsflash: First responders are tactical athletes whether or not they spend time improving their fitness, simply by nature of the job. As a first responder, “you’ve got to be pretty good at everything all the time, but you don’t have to be exceptional at any one thing,” Dr. Dawes explains. Focus on whole-body fitness and consider what areas you need to be strongest in to improve on-the-job performance. Nice outlines the key areas first responders should focus on as strength training, cardio training, flexibility training and mobility training.

The purpose of making fitness a priority is a) to keep you healthy during and after your career, and b) to make you more successful while on the job, fulfilling your responsibilities and protecting your community. To learn more about how you can improve your fitness with small, accessible steps, view the on-demand webinar, “Evidence-Proven Strategies to Outsmart Exhaustion and Become a Fitter, More Resilient First Responder.”

Lexipol’s Content Development staff consists of current and former public safety professionals including lawyers and others who have served as chief, deputy chief, captain, lieutenant, sergeant, officer, deputy, jail manager, PREA auditor, prosecutor, agency counsel, civil litigator, writer, subject matter expert instructor within public safety agencies, as well as college and university adjunct professor. Learn more about Lexipol’s public safety solutions.