Firefighter Fitness

There is no question that substantial levels of physical fitness are required for firefighting and rescue work. A recent review of the available scientific literature on firefighting job performance concluded that without a moderately high level of physical fitness, firefighters cannot perform their jobs safely or well. The bottom line is that a low level of fitness jeopardizes the safety of not only the individual but also his or her co-workers and the public.

Many firefighters and rescue workers follow a regular exercise and conditioning program. Some public safety employees are allotted time while on duty for physical conditioning, while others exercise on their own. Making time for regular physical training is analogous to the time spent maintaining your rescue tools, vehicles and equipment but in this case you're working on your most important piece of firefighting and rescue equipment your body. Time set aside for this purpose can accomplish many things, provided it's used productively.

An effective cardiovascular exercise session takes from 30 to 45 minutes, including warm-up and cool-down. Flexibility exercises (stretching) shouldn't take much more than 15 minutes, and a good strength training routine can be completed in about an hour. Certainly, these exercises don't need to be done all at one time but can be spread out over the day.

If a person dedicates himself or herself to a regular program of effective physical conditioning, not only will the level of fitness progressively improve, but the risk of injury greatly decreases. Flexible, strong muscles protect your joints and are able to withstand high stresses. A well-conditioned cardiovascular system reduces the chance of experiencing exhaustion during prolonged exertion. This is important because injuries usually occur when people become fatigued. Thus, fit people have fewer and less severe injuries, and typical job tasks are much easier for them.

A significant number of public safety workers in the United States, however, don't use their physical conditioning time effectively. Some squander it, avoiding exercise whenever possible. Some rely on the activity habits of their co-workers or shift leaders to determine what they do for themselves. Still others spend their entire "physical conditioning" time playing recreational sports such as basketball, volleyball or softball. For people who rely on recreational sports as their "training," there is a high rate of injury, and this is no coincidence. And then there are those who perform only aerobic exercise (like jogging) while neglecting to do any stretching or strength training. Again, injuries in this group are common.

Physical training is very specific, and your body responds to it in very specific ways. Training only accomplishes its goal if you do it correctly. For example, if you want to increase or maintain muscle flexibility, you must regularly stretch a muscle to the point where mild tension is developed, and then hold still in that position for a minimum of 30 seconds. Without this "static stretching" performed on a regular basis, muscles will gradually become tighter. Similarly, if you want to increase or maintain muscle strength, specific muscle contractions with fairly heavy loads are the only way to accomplish this. Otherwise, strength is progressively lost as time goes by. If you want to increase or maintain your level of cardiovascular fitness, regular aerobic exercise that is sustained for at least 20 minutes is all that will achieve this goal. Without it, your cardiovascular system gets more and more "out of shape" and your ability to withstand long periods of exertion will diminish.

Basketball, volleyball, softball and other sports are games designed only for fun and competition. They are not useful for increasing or maintaining physical fitness. During these activities, no static stretching occurs, so they can't improve your flexibility. Powerful muscle contractions against fairly heavy resistance are virtually absent, so there is little strength training accomplished. Finally, sports are rather ineffective forms of cardiovascular exercise because your physical activity is not maintained steadily throughout the game. Instead, things fluctuate from brief periods of high intensity down to no activity at all when the ball goes out of bounds, is passed to another player or when a time-out occurs. To derive the same cardiovascular benefit from 30 minutes of sustained jogging, biking or swimming you'd have to play several hours of these sports.

A person whose only exercise is jogging may be doing a lot of good for his or her cardiovascular system but that's about all. No stretching or strengthening is involved in jogging, so even though the heart and blood vessels may be in good shape, skeletal muscles are growing progressively tighter and weaker.

In any weight-bearing activity, muscles provide the shock absorption. Strong, flexible muscles absorb shock well and protect your joints. Weak or tight muscles are poor shock absorbers, so the forces are transferred to the knees, hips, back, etc.

It's no surprise that injuries experienced by recreational athletes are almost always due to being out of shape, or "de-conditioned." When de-conditioned people try to play strenuous games, they are playing with weak muscles, tight muscles and/or an unfit cardiovascular system. No wonder they get injured! Add to this someone who may be carrying extra weight, and injuries are practically guaranteed. The more you weigh, the more impact there is with each step.

Another prime reason for injury is over-aggressiveness. For whatever reason, many people seize upon "fun and recreational" games as an opportunity to demonstrate their athletic prowess ... and end up hurting somebody needlessly.

Playing sports can't get you in shape. You must get in shape before you play sports. That's why regular stretching, strength conditioning and aerobic exercise are known as "training." Merely playing a sport is a poor excuse for "physical conditioning," and using sports in place of real training would be difficult to justify in light of the number of injuries that occur.

Playing a sport is not an effective or optimum use of your training time. It has little positive effect on your flexibility and strength, and requires too much time involvement to improve your cardiovascular system. All that playing a sport can do is to improve your skills at that particular game, plus burn up a few calories in the process. But in a profession where physical fitness has a direct impact on your job performance, it is vital to bear these points in mind when approaching your next workout.

A physical conditioning program is just like anything else: You get out it what you put into it. If the time is used productively, you stand to benefit a great deal.

John Hayford, M.S., is an exercise physiologist and director of public safety and wellness at the National Hospital Medical Center in Arlington, VA. He has conducted health care and fitness programs for a number of fire departments and law enforcement agencies.