The Firefighter Fitness Pentagon: Part 4 – Body Composition

Rod Hammer reports on the need for firefighters to lose weight and become healthier in order to reduce health risks.


Heart attacks have been the leading cause of firefighter fatalities for the past 30 years. On average, between 38 and 50 firefighters die each year of heart attacks. In addition, nearly 1,000 non-fatal heart attacks occur annually to on-duty firefighters. Obesity has been...


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Heart attacks have been the leading cause of firefighter fatalities for the past 30 years. On average, between 38 and 50 firefighters die each year of heart attacks. In addition, nearly 1,000 non-fatal heart attacks occur annually to on-duty firefighters.

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Obesity has been associated with an increase in chronic disease and health conditions according to the American College of Sports Medicine. In fact, there is a strong correlation between being overweight or obese and the increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. All of these factors increase the likelihood of having a heart attack during extreme physical exertion.

Most people are under the impression that firefighters are strong and healthy. Perhaps that is also the assumption of many in the fire service. While this may be true in some departments, reality may be less comforting. In a recent study, 82% of career and volunteer firefighters were overweight or obese. This is appalling, considering the national average of overweight and obese adults is a whopping 65%. Another study showed that the average firefighter is overweight and nearing obesity. Ironically, we have an overweight nation protected by an even more overweight fire service.

This sounds harsh, but it is time we face the facts and decide if each one of us needs to make some changes. We can’t presume to be able to safely fight fires if we have health risks associated with being overweight and obese.

Measurement

Researchers who look at the effects of being overweight or obese use the Body Mass Index (BMI). This index is a comparison of weight to height. The healthy weight recommendation is a BMI between 18.5 and 25. Between 25 and 30 is considered overweight and greater than 30 is classified as obese. Use the Body Mass Index table on page 102 to find your BMI value by finding your height in the left column and your weight in the top row.

While this measure is not exact, it is a good indication of your potential for health risks due to excess body fat. In fact, BMI is the number most used in obesity research. It should be noted that those of you who are very muscular with low body fat might inaccurately be given a higher BMI number. You should use a different measurement technique.

Besides the Body Mass Index, body fat is also discussed in terms of percent body fat. This is the percentage of your body mass that is made up of fat. The remaining tissue is referred to as the fat-free mass, for obvious reasons. Percent body fat is considered healthy if it is below 20% for men and below 25% for women.

Percent body fat can be measured using a variety of testing methods. Hydrostatic weighing is considered the “gold standard.” You sit in a chair attached to a scale and are lowered into a pool of water. Using several calculations, your body fat percentage is determined. This method takes about 15 minutes to conduct and requires you to wear a swimsuit for testing. Hydrostatic weighing is usually done at hospitals and university research centers.

Another body fat percentage measurement method that is easier to administer than hydrostatic weighing is the measurement of subcutaneous body fat. Calipers are used to measure skin-fold thickness at various sites on the body. The skin-fold values are entered into an equation and again, percent body fat is determined. This method takes about 10 to 15 minutes to administer. Personal fitness trainers in fitness centers as well as technicians in hospitals and universities conduct skin-fold measurements.

This method is considered slightly less accurate than hydrostatic weighing because of the variance in measurement between test technicians. It is also somewhat uncomfortable because the technician has to pinch the skin to create a fold that can be measured. Accuracy can be difficult due to the large skin-fold size if the firefighter is obese.

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