Firefighters are known for eating well, and the firehouse kitchen table is often the place to trade stories and learn from each other's experiences. At the same time, you're battling stress, emotional letdown and hunger after a good job. It's no coincidence you probably crave carbohydrates and need a quick-fix so you're ready for the next call. Foods like rice, pasta and breads are comforting and easy to cook. Carbohydrates satisfy your body's need to replace the energy used on the fireground, along with the need to lower your cortisol (bad stress hormone) to help you relax.
Unfortunately, many of these foods also lead to increased body fat, which has been linked to diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity, four factors that increase your chances of a heart attack or stroke. High body fat levels also decrease your mobility and often depress your motivation to exercise.
Fat loss is the second "F" in our "3 Fs" of firefighting conditioning. This article will explore fat-loss issues and the five parts to a fat-loss program, and help you create your own plan.
While eating, cooking and socializing are all part of the fire service culture, changing your food choices and losing body fat doesn't have to affect the culture completely. You can still sit and eat with your team, but it's your choice to eat the appropriate foods. Let's address some issues regarding fat loss that can hamper your efforts:
- Discipline - The choice of what you eat is on your shoulders. If you're trying to lose body fat, but you give into ice-cream cravings at 10 o'clock every night, your good intentions won't manifest into good results. If you must, set aside one meal each week to "cheat" and eat whatever you want so you don't feel deprived.
5 Parts to Your Fat-Loss Plan
There are five key parts to your fat-loss plan: nutrient intake, strength training, cardiovascular programming, supplementation and professional assistance.
1. Nutrient intake
Your capability to break down food is different from everyone else's. This test will ensure that you eat the right foods for your optimal health and fat loss. The other vital component of nutrient intake is the Energy In/Energy Out formula. In general terms, you must burn off more than you eat. Exercise and careful reduction in daily calories create an energy deficit that's needed to lose fat.
2. Strength training - The bottom line is that muscle burns more calories than fat. Your strength-training program must emphasize multiple planes of motions and compound (multi-joint) movements to help you build muscle, lose fat and prepare your body for firefighting.
An essential component to strength training is hormonal control. To build muscle, you must keep your testosterone and growth-hormone levels high and your cortisol (bad stress hormone) levels low. During sleep, your body secretes these hormones to actively repair itself from the damage done during each day. If you stay up late and keep your lights on at night, your cortisol levels remain high and prevent your body from its nighttime role.
3. Cardiovascular programming - Besides helping your heart and lungs, cardiovascular programming also helps your body use more oxygen so you can burn more body fat. However, the fat-burning effect from cardiovascular programming ends a short time after your cardio session as opposed to strength training, which helps you burn fat for up to the next 48 hours. Combining strength training along with both low-intensity (walking) and high-intensity (intervals) cardiovascular programming will ensure you're burning body fat, increasing total caloric expenditure and staying strong.
4. Supplementation - Vitamin and mineral supplements may be necessary to maintain optimal health during times of caloric restriction. A group of vitamins known as the antioxidants (vitamins C and E and beta-carotene) battle free radicals that build up in your system during stressful times of intense training or with exposure to environmental factors like exhaust fumes.
5. Professional assistance - If you have trouble during your program with a plateau, you may require professional assistance to get your body back to burning fat. Sometimes, the changes are small and work immediately. Most gyms and health clubs have personal trainers you can seek out who are educated in the art of body sculpting. Consider investing in your health.
Here are the steps you can take to create your own fat-loss plan:
2. Figure your protein needs - Men and women, 1.2 to 1.4 grams per kilogram of body weight per day. Take body weight in kilograms and multiply by 1.2, then 1.4 to find protein range.
3. Figure your carbohydrate needs - Men, six grams per kilogram per day; women, five grams per kilogram per day.
4. Figure your fat needs - The rest of your calories should come from fats such as olive oil, nuts and fish oils. Fat should start at 25% of your total caloric needs.
5. Water intake - Strive to drink half of your body weight (in pounds) in ounces of water. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds, do your best to drink 100 ounces each day. You will have to consume more on hot or busy days.
6. Strength training - Strength training should be done at least three times per week emphasizing multi-joint movements. An example of a multi-joint movement is a squat. The chart at the top of this page provides an example training session.
7. Cardiovascular programming - Cardiovascular programming can be done after your strength training for up to 30 minutes of submaximal work. Begin with 15 minutes and gradually increase the duration and intensity. On days between strength workouts, you can do high-intensity cardio sessions for up to 60 minutes, including sprints, stairs, hills, intervals and long-distance work.
More Fat-Loss Tips
Other recommendations that will help your fat-loss plan include:
- Avoid refined, processed sugars such as white bread, white rice, white pasta, cookies and baked goods. Limit sugar and cream in your coffee.
- Eat four to six smaller meals every two to three hours apart. After a job, eat as soon as possible if you have missed your meal time.
- Keep carbohydrates like brown rice, whole wheat pasta and sweet potatoes to daytime meals. From late afternoon on, eat vegetables with your protein.
- Eat breakfast. Breakfast will start your fat burning and should be one of your biggest meals in the day.
Losing body fat will have a positive impact on your health and performance on the job. You will move easier, function better, live healthier, and have more energy to work all day. It will take some effort, but it can be done. Patience and consistency will bring your desired results. Support is a key factor, so consider making this a firehouse effort.
Rich Meyer, CSCS, USAW, is a firefighter and rescue technician with the Bloomfield, NJ, Volunteer Fire Rescue Company. He is the founder of FASTBODIES Fitness and Performance and creator of FAST Responders Functional Fire Fitness program. Meyer is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the NSCA. For more information or to sign up for a free online training journal, go to www.functionalfirefitness.com.