Exercise is the best weapon first responders have against cancer, heart disease, stress, obesity, PTSD, mental health, and injury. Read the list and then get moving…
Have you thought about starting an exercise program but haven’t done it yet? Or are you lacking the motivation to stay consistent with your workouts? The goal of Fire Rescue Fitness is to help educate and motivate 100,000 first responders to improve their health and fitness. One of the best ways to do this is to educate on the importance that exercise plays in our health. So, I compiled a list of the top 23 reasons why firefighters, EMTs, and medics (and any other first responder) should (and needs to) work out regularly.
#1. Reduces Inflammation! Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine found how just one session of moderate exercise can also act as an anti-inflammatory. The findings have encouraging implications for chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and for more prevalent conditions, such as obesity. The study, recently published online in Brain, Behavior and Immunity, found one 20-minute session of moderate exercise can stimulate the immune system, producing an anti-inflammatory cellular response. We can all find 20 minutes each day, take a walk, and/or do some light stretches, this movement will lead to more. And, it is helping your body battle all the stress we as first responders are faced with.
#2. Helps you protect and serve! We took an oath as first responders to protect and serve our community to the best of our ability. The “job” of first responding is very physical, we are required to carry heavy equipment, move and drag objects (including people at times) and handle stressful situations. Regular exercise helps improve performance in every aspect of our jobs. And, if you are a parent, you also owe it to your family to set an example. It does not have to be as much as you think, regular exercise at least 3x per week at 30 minutes can have a drastic positive effect on your health. You can do this…
#3. Reduces blood pressure. High blood pressure can cause hardening and thickening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), which can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or other complications. Which by the way are the top reasons firefighters die in the line of duty. The causes of hypertension include the increased plaque in the arteries that builds up from consuming a high-fat diet. Exercise helps reduce your blood pressure, in part, by attacking the plaque in your arteries. As the arteries widen, the blood flows through more freely, and your blood pressure eventually starts to drop. Hypertension also decreases as a result of exercise because your heart, which is a muscle, is getting a workout. The stronger your heart muscle gets, the greater its ability to pump blood through the arteries, which also helps to reduce your blood pressure.
#4. Builds aerobic power. Your aerobic capacity is your body’s ability to work at maximum capacity by getting oxygen to your body’s working muscles and tissues. Ordinarily, people lose about 1 percent a year of their aerobic power or, if you’d like to do the math, 10 percent per decade. Both long-term and short-term exercise training studies show that you can cut this loss in half so that you’re losing 5 percent rather than 10 percent in that decade. And, when using an SCBA, that 5% makes a huge difference in your performance. It literally can mean an extra 3-5 minutes of air.
#5. Reduces body fat and regulates weight. Exercise burns calories which can lead to weight and body fat loss. The more you exercise, the more calories you burn, and over a consistent period of time that can lead to body fat reduction. And, exercising can also boost your metabolism. Your nutrition plays a role in weight reduction also but as a rule of thumb, to lose weight and keep it off you need to move your body and watch what you eat.
#6. Lowers Type 2 diabetes risk. There is an increase in the prevalence of Type 2 diabetes in the general population and the fire service. The complications of adult-onset Type 2 diabetes pose a serious risk to your physical well-being. Exercise improves the body’s use of insulin, and related weight loss improves insulin sensitivity. This is something that people with type 2 diabetes, or at risk for type 2 diabetes, gain substantial benefits from.
#7. To lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Heart attacks and strokes are one of the leading causes of firefighter fatalities. Research continually shows that regular exercise helps to keep blood pressure and cholesterol within a healthy range. Here are two reasons why: Weaker heart muscles pump little blood with lots of effort. By exercising regularly, you strengthen your heart muscles and train them to pump more blood with less effort. The stronger your heart is the less pressure will be exerted on your arteries. Yes, I know I already listed this in #2 above. This is such an important reason to exercise that I wanted to list it twice. Exercise helps to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels which can considerably reduce your chances of sudden cardiac arrest and stroke- the top reasons firefighters die in the line of duty.
#8. Boosts immunity. Exercise causes changes in antibodies and white blood cells which are the body's immune system cells that fight disease. These antibodies or WBCs circulate more rapidly in more fit individuals, so they could detect illnesses earlier than they might have before. The brief rise in body temperature during and right after exercise may also help prevent bacteria from growing. This temperature rise may help the body fight infection better, similar to what happens when you have a fever. You can click here for a great review of this research.
#9. Improves your mood. There is a sense of accomplishment you feel after a workout. Study after study confirms the direct relationship between exercise and an increase in feel-good hormones—one study found that high-intensity exercise has a similar impact on your brain to cocaine. (That's gotta feel good.) Other research suggests physical activity can help manage depression. Even in the 1800s, Henry David Thoreau wrote about the positive effects of exercise. He stated: “An early morning walk is a blessing for the whole day.” I am a firm believer in this research. Just ask anyone on my crew or in my home when I do not get my workouts done. They would all agree I am not a happy person.
#10. To Feel ...Better. The first thing first responders, following FRF programs report, is how much better they feel. In a lot of cases, people that do not exercise regularly do not even realize how bad they feel. It is easy to get used to feeling sluggish, achy, and unmotivated. Exercise boosts your energy levels and makes you feel amazing. It can lower your risks of depression and improves your overall mood by causing your body’s endorphins to kick in. These are the natural “feel good” neurotransmitters that start to exert their effects after about 20 minutes of training. These regular exercise-related boosts eventually improve your overall mental health over the long term. Exercise can provide a natural high.
#11. To Alleviate Pain. Regular exercise is a great way to alleviate chronic muscle and joint pain. Exercise has been linked to decreasing inflammation throughout the body. This can lead to pain reduction and better mobility. Exercise can also be used to rehabilitate sore muscles and bones. For example, persistent back pain can be lessened by strengthening your core, which will protect against further injury and allow more daily activity. Here is a great routine that will help your body move and feel better, click here for the FRF recovery workout.
#12. Boosts your energy. Exercise helps your body function more efficiently and leads to more oxygen to fuel your body’s cells. You also feel fewer aches and pains and have greater strength. As a result, you can go about your daily activities feeling less fatigued, stressed, and weary. Although working out early in the morning or late in the afternoon may feel like the last thing you have the energy to do, once you build exercise into your daily routines, these workout bouts will actually seem less tiresome because you’ll feel more mentally and physically capable of carrying them out. Research shows that even low-to-moderate intensity exercise for just 20 minutes a day, three days a week for six weeks can significantly improve energy and metabolic levels.
#13. Improves sleep. Although sleep experts recommend that you not exercise right before you go to bed, exercise during the day benefits your sleep at night. Granted as first responders sometimes the lack of sleep cannot be controlled. Research does show that the physical exertion you engage in during the day helps your body’s circadian rhythm keep in tune. There is also some correlation to exercise and quality of sleep. Those that exercise regularly experience a deeper and more restful sleep faster. Personally, I see this during my shifts. When I do not work out I do not sleep well and struggle to even fall asleep.
#14. Improves sex life. Keeping your muscles active through exercise helps promote the demands placed on your endocrine glands to produce more hormones. With more muscle mass comes greater stimulation to produce androgens which help both men and women maintain their sexual functioning. And, the more fit you are, the higher your interest in and ability to carry out sexual activity. Your emotional resilience will also be greater if you exercise, which also benefits your relationships.
#15. Boosts memory. Remember to stay consistent with your exercise. There are now volumes of studies on humans as well as lab animals showing that regular physical exercise helps your neurons stay in shape, particularly in the memory areas of your brain. Even just slow to moderate walking has been shown to help your brain’s memory center maintain its health and vitality. Memory also benefits from a general lowering of cortisol, the stress hormone, associated with the improved mood you experience from your regular workouts.
#16. Builds intelligence. Along with memory, your intellectual skills benefit from regular physical activity. When you exercise, oxygen flows more freely to your brain, which can stimulate the production of new brain cells and neurons, lowering your risk of cogitative impairment now and in later life.
#17. Lowers anxiety. Exercise can improve your mood which then can transfer to improving how you deal with anxiety. As your levels of endorphins increase, your feelings of worry also start to diminish. When you exercise, you also refocus your attention from your daily problems to the workout itself. You can gain a fresh perspective on even the most preoccupying concerns in your life by taking an exercise break. When you return to these daily problems, you approach them with renewed energy. And exercise can also help manage anxiety and depression. There's a host of research proving that people with anxiety and depression can find major help in working out.
#18. Builds strength and muscle. More muscle is good for many reasons, it burns five times more calories each day than fatty tissue. When you exercise by adding resistance training, your body composition will change to contain more muscle, thus resulting in extra calories burned while you sleep. Keeping your muscles strong also helps you stay more “fit for duty” and helps you perform better on and off the fire/rescue scene.
#19. Improves self-confidence on and off the fire/rescue scene. When we exercise we improve our mood, gain strength and feel better. This can then transfer to a sense of accomplishment and improved self-confidence. Setting and achieving fitness goals transfers to other areas of your lift. The goal-setting/goal-accomplishing cycle is a learned trait. If you set your mind to something and work toward its accomplishment, the outcome will be positive.
#20. You’ll Get More Done. Working out takes time, but it may save you even more time in the long run. Studies have confirmed that training your brain to focus on a task, like a workout, transfers to keep you focused and productive in whatever it is you do outside of the gym. In fact, one International Journal of Workplace Health Management study found that people are 23 percent more productive on days they exercise (click here for the proof).
#21. To feel young. Consistent exercise helps your skin and posture thus making you look younger. And, exercise is shown to help your cells age slower. Research has shown that exercise appears to slow the shriveling of the protective tips on bundles of genes inside cells (called telomeres), which means a slowing of the aging process. People who did 100 minutes of weekly exercise had telomeres that looked like those from someone about 5-6 years younger than those who did zero to16 minutes of exercise each week. The bottom line is that exercise helps manage stress, hormones, muscle mass, and cell function, all of which improve quality of life and appearance.
#22. It reduces the chances of cancer! I saved the best for last. Over the next few years, we will see that cancer will kill more first responders than heart disease, strokes, or fires. First responders have higher rates of many cancer types, including bladder, brain, colon, leukemia, lymphoma, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, lung, kidney, melanoma, multiple myeloma, prostate, and testis. The longer you’re on the job, the greater your risk. With no foolproof cure, prevention is the best mode of attack against the disease. The most recent report from the American Cancer Society reminds us that we all have the best prevention tactic at our disposal: EXERCISE!
Consistent and functional exercise helps you stay at a healthy weight, which helps regulate hormones and helps the immune system. In fact, being overweight or obese is a factor in an estimated 14% to 20% of cancer deaths in the US. So if you are an overweight first responder, your cancer risk is exponentially high! The good news is that the research suggests losing even a small amount of weight has health benefits and is a good place to start. Click here for a great article on reducing Cancer as a First Responder.
#23. You will be more resilient. Exercise can help manage stress, improve your physical performance (on and off the job), and help your brain function. This all leads to a more productive and happy career as a first responder.
Are you feeling motivated? I hope that as you read through the list you not only got the urge to put on your sneakers and hit the gym but also now have an understanding of the importance of regular exercise. As a first responder, exercise is not a suggestion, it is essential.
If you are looking to get started training ‘functionally” like a firefighter, EMT, and/or medic, I have you covered. FRF has teamed with some of the most prominent leaders of the fire service to "Challenge" you to improve your health in 2023. The Better Every Shift Challenge is a program and competition created to create some positive ways to promote health and wellness in the fire service.
Joining the FRF BES Challenge will give you access to three (3) FRF workouts, nutritional guides, and resources, a chance to win cash and prizes, and a way to help those organizations that promote a healthier fire service. There is NO BETTER TIME than now to start working on your fitness.
Please share with your crew and department and comment if you agree (or don't).
Stay safe, stay positive, and GET FRF. THIS IS THE YEAR!
-Zam (Aaron Zamzow)