Barriers to exercise for first responders: Dealing with time and motivation
From resistance-training complexes to gamifying training, these strategies will help you maximize the time you spend working out
By Jay Dawes, Ph.D., CSCS TSAC-F, and David Baker
Most training academies for first responders focus at least a portion of their time on the development of physical fitness to prepare recruits for the rigors of their occupation. In most cases, after academy training is over, each individual is responsible for maintaining or improving their own health and fitness over the duration of their career.
Unfortunately, many active first responders have actual and/or perceived barriers to exercise that may affect their ability to maintain health and occupational readiness. It is important to remember that first responders are not necessarily unique in this way, but they have unique jobs that require them to be fit enough to protect the public, their colleagues and themselves. For this reason, strategies for overcoming common barriers to exercise must be a priority within the first responder community.
In this article, we will discuss strategies for reducing some of these barriers.
Consistently, people cite time as the number one reason they have difficulty maintaining an exercise program. However, studies show that even a little bit of time spent exercising can make a big difference.
Researchers have reported that as little as 15 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per day can reduce an individual’s risk of all-cause mortality and increase life expectancy by three years compared to those who are inactive. It has also been found that as few as three 13-minute resistance training sessions per week performed at a moderate intensity can promote increases in muscular strength.
In addition, another study looked into the amount of effort necessary to improve an athlete’s “one-repetition maximum,” the standard in weight training for determining improvement. The researchers determined a single set of six to 12 repetitions to momentary failure, at 70%-85% of the one-repetition maximum, two to three times per week with high intensity of effort, produced significant strength increases in resistance-trained men. This is great news if you are trying to maintain fitness during busy times of the year, such as over the holidays.
Combining cardio and resistance training using resistance-training complexes is another way to improve efficiency to maximize time spent working out. Complexes are a series of exercises performed consecutively (without recovery) and without putting down the chosen implement (i.e., barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, sandbag, etc.). For some sample complexes, check out this article in the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s TSAC Report.
The following are a few ways to help you overcome some of the time constraints that may hinder you from starting or maintaining a consistent fitness routine.
- Morning/noon/night: Some people find they do better working out at a specific time of day. If you are a morning person, consider setting your alarm 30-60 minutes early to get in your exercise before the day begins. If you prefer exercising in the evening, set aside time in your schedule so your workouts don’t conflict with other activities. If you have the ability to work out during your lunch hour, this can help fill out an otherwise busy day. If you cannot commit to a specific workout time, aim to take short 5-10 minute activity breaks throughout the day. Remember, physical activity and exercise are cumulative, so your daily “workout” doesn’t all have to be done at once.
- Where does the time go? Look at how you’re currently spending your time. Is there anything you’re doing that could be reduced or eliminated to make time for exercise? Cutting out an hour of TV or social media is often the key. You can also watch TV while you work out if your gym (home or otherwise) has a treadmill/elliptical or other equipment where a TV is visible. Some people like to save a specific show as a reward, only allowing themselves to watch it while they’re doing cardio. Often, you may catch yourself working a few extra minutes to finish an episode. Technology like Bluetooth headphones can also help with multitasking during exercise sessions.
- Plan workouts in advance: Instead of asking yourself every day, “Should I work out?” schedule your workouts in advance so you know when to make the time. You can use a piece of paper, a note on your bathroom mirror, a whiteboard, your phone’s calendar app, or even a Google spreadsheet. Consider keeping a workout journal so you can track both your workouts and the results.
- Make exercise a priority: If you only work out when you “have the time,” you’ll likely find yourself skipping sessions based on your perceptions about what actually is and is not a priority. Instead, make sure your family members, co-workers and friends know that you have a schedule to keep, so they can plan around you. It’s not a matter of saying, “I can’t – I have to work out.” Instead, say, “I have a scheduled commitment at that time; can we meet earlier or later?”
After a long shift, many first responders find it difficult to get motivated to train. One of the biggest barriers to exercise is a lack of motivation. Family and work stress, general fatigue, and a whole host of other issues can compete for our time and attention and make physical training seem more like a chore versus a reward. However, we must acknowledge motivation and commitment are two different things.
Motivation is a feeling, and commitment is a choice. When an individual decides to become a first responder, they have made a commitment to all those they serve and essentially give up the option to become unfit – or at least unfit for duty. However, as the occupational life span continues there will be times when you may be more or less fit due to career and life events. It can be difficult to restart a training program and motivation is a powerful tool that can inspire you to make the changes necessary to get on track.
The following are a few ways to help you “reset” and get motivated to train until it becomes a commitment.
- Motivation vs. commitment: Even elite-level athletes don’t feel motivated to train all the time. However, they are committed to the process because they understand that is the cost of their occupation. “Tactical athletes” should view training as a commitment, and this change of perspective can impact motivation – even if it may be a struggle in the short run. Of all the recommendations, this is the most impactful but also the most challenging. It requires consistency and the willpower to do the things necessary to be successful regardless of how you feel. In all the years I have coached, I cannot count the number of times people told me they did not want to work out, but I have never had someone say they regret that they did.
- Gamify training: When you disguise work as play, people tend to work harder. Adding some form of competition to a training session is a great way to get motivated and measure progress. This can be competition between you and a partner, a group or yourself. For instance, hop on a treadmill and try to cover as much distance as possible in a certain period. Next workout, try to beat it!
- Mix it up: Tired of the same old training routine? Adding some variety to a training session is a great way to get motivated. Hate doing cardio for an extended period? Instead, pick four pieces of equipment (e.g., treadmill, elliptical, rower and bike) and perform 5-minute work bouts on each. You can also combine some competition with this by trying to cover as much total distance as possible for each. Alternating five-minute bouts of resistance training, cardio training and mobility work also help reduce boredom and staleness and allows you to work multiple physical attributes in the same training session. Exercising outdoors is another great option as it is typically more stimulating from a sensory standpoint in contrast to training indoors on a machine.
- Accountability partners: Sometimes we all need a hand. Accountability partners can help motivate us to stay on track when we have a difficult time honoring our commitment to stay fit. This partner may be a friend, colleague or family member who is willing to help you stay accountable. If you do not have someone you see daily who can help with this, starting a social media group with others who have similar needs may also be useful.
- Forgive yourself: People who find themselves less fit than they want to be can often beat themselves up for letting it happen. You cannot control what happened in the past, but you can control your future. Start where you are and celebrate progress instead of dwelling on how fit you used to be.
As a first responder, you have a responsibility to the community, your colleagues and yourself to remain fit for duty. This commitment is not simple, but if you address the barriers to exercise that include time and motivation, you’re much more likely to succeed.
Even for the most dedicated individuals, there will be times you will be on point and other times when you may just need to do whatever is necessary to maintain. When you commit to a fitness program, remember you are playing the long game and that program may change and evolve over time based on a variety of factors. Just remember, people typically rust out before they wear out. The key is to keep moving!
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About the authors
Jay Dawes, Ph.D., CSCS TSAC-F, is an associate professor of applied exercise science at Oklahoma State University. Dawes has worked as a university athletic performance coordinator, strength/performance coach, personal trainer and educator for approximately 25 years. He also frequently coaches and provides sports science support to numerous elite and professional teams, as well as law enforcement, fire and military groups. His primary research interests are focused on improving the health, fitness and human performance for the tactical athletes/first responders as well as sport athletes. Dawes has a broad background in strength and conditioning, with specific expertise in training and conditioning methods for athletes and first responders.
David Baker is senior manager of content marketing at Lexipol. Besides writing and editing content for the Cordico and Lexipol blogs, he is an avid road racer and trail runner. David completed six marathons and seven half marathons in 2022, including the Boston Marathon and New York City Marathon. He also holds the Guinness World Record for the fastest half marathon in “highland dress” (kilt, dress sporran, and formal Prince Charlie jacket). He lives, trains and works in southern Utah. David is the proud father of a police officer son.