Firefighter Fitness

John Hayford explains how eating a well-balanced meal can serve in lieu of dietary supplements.


Many firefighters grew up during a time when the words "exercise" and "physical fitness" held negative connotations. During school sports or gym class, it was common for poor performance to be punished with sit-ups, push-ups and running laps. The military had its dreaded obstacle course. On the rare...


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Many firefighters grew up during a time when the words "exercise" and "physical fitness" held negative connotations. During school sports or gym class, it was common for poor performance to be punished with sit-ups, push-ups and running laps. The military had its dreaded obstacle course. On the rare occasions when people were seen exercising on their own, voluntarily, they were either trying to shed a few extra pounds or were probably "health nuts." Is it any wonder that many people still have very poor attitudes toward exercise?

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Photo by Adam Alberti
A firefighter is checked out by EMS after battling a blaze in Gilette, NJ. Because of the heavy physical demands of their work, many firefighters have incorporated regular exercise into their daily routines.

A lot changed during the "Fitness Boom" that took place in the 1970s and '80s. Seemingly overnight, you couldn't turn on the TV or open a magazine without seeing somebody exercising. Thousands of health clubs opened across the country and exercise classes required reservations in advance. The field of exercise science gained prominence, and research showed again and again the many benefits to be gained through a healthy, active lifestyle.

Nowadays, physical fitness is seen in a very positive light, and people by the millions have incorporated regular exercise into their daily routines. Firefighters, because of the heavy physical demands of their work, are no exception.

Unfortunately, whenever people get enthusiastic about something, there are those who want to overdo it, and there are companies that will try to make a profit off these desires by selling products that make incredible promises. Such is the case with millions of "dietary supplements" available in stores, catalogs, and health clubs. The bottom line is that while many people buy these products, few of them have any real value.

There is no question that a complete, balanced diet is absolutely critical to health, physical fitness and athletic performance. But Americans are fortunate to live where food is plentiful and nutrients abound. By simply eating a regular balanced diet that encompasses a wide variety of foods, all of your body's nutrient requirements can be met easily. Even the firefighter who undergoes rigorous physical training does not require anything beyond a balanced diet to supply all the nutrients his or her body needs. In fact, in this country, true "nutrient deficiencies" are exceedingly rare; to the contrary, over-consumption (nutrient overkill) is very common.

Some people who follow a regular exercise program adopt the philosophy that "if some is good, more will be even better." Hence, they exercise too vigorously or too often, or try to push themselves too far in an attempt to rush their bodies toward their personal goal. This is called "over-training," and it is counterproductive. Many would rather believe in overnight results than in the dedication and discipline of a regular, long-term training program.

Along the same lines, millions of dollars are spent every year on dietary supplements, mega-dose vitamins, obscure minerals and other products because people believe these supplements will "fill in the cracks" of their diet or will give them an extra advantage toward gaining strength, muscle mass, stamina or peace of mind. Popular examples are protein powders, sports drinks, amino acids and herbs but there are many, many others.

Perhaps these people believe the more nutrients they cram into it, the more nutrients the body will use. But this is not the case. The human body extracts from the diet just enough to meet its needs but is unable to use any more. Any excess nutrients, in amounts over and above the body's requirements, are stored as fat or are left behind in the bathroom.

Most dietitians shake their heads when they see people rushing to buy the latest "hot" dietary supplement or magic pill. A Registered Dietitian (or R.D.), after all, has earned an academic degree that requires a license to practice. On the other hand, almost anyone can declare himself or herself to be a "nutritionist," a title which carries no certification, standards or assurance of scientific knowledge.

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