Fire-d Up for Fitness

March 6, 2009
Optimal fitness is a combination of lifestyle, nutrition and habits, but it cannot be reached without an appropriate level of physical fitness.

Coaches and athletes have long appreciated the role exercise plays in the enhancement and prevention of injury. But the power of exercise isn't limited to gymnasiums and playing fields. The same benefits need to be applied to the fire stations.

It has been said that firefighters expend as much energy during a major emergency as the players in a football game, if not more. This assertion is supported by many studies that demonstrate the need for and benefits of high levels of physical fitness in the fire service.

The sedentary hours firefighters may spend in the fire station may be as hazardous for them as fighting a fire. A major reason for firefighters high risk of heart attacks may be that they get little or no exercise while on-duty or neglect to perform while at home. The sudden, intense energy demand that is needed to fight a fire is what puts the firefighter who is not in good physical condition in grave danger. A firefighter's lack of physical fitness can be viewed as a matter of public safety as well as one's individual health.

A firefighter is just like an athlete, being they must be properly equipped, skilled at what they do, and fit for the demands of their jobs. Optimal fitness is a combination of lifestyle, nutrition and habits, but it cannot be reached without an appropriate level of physical fitness.

Let's look at what is considered the major components of being physical fit and to understand their benefits and how they play a part in building a firefighter's body to the ultimate.

Cardiorespiratory Enduarance
Nothing is more important to overall health and fitness than cardiovascular or aerobic training. Cardiovascular exercise improves the ability of the lungs to provide oxygen and the heart and vessels to supply blood to the tissues. This type of fitness largely determines your ability to participate in vigorous physical activities for extended periods of time. Firefighting is a physically demanding occupation because they have to perform heavy physical labor under extreme environmental conditions. Unlike manual jobs where most of the effort has been engineered out of manual handling tasks, firefighters must respond to an ever-changing set of environmental conditions for extended periods.

The heart rate response to hard physical work has been demonstrated to be a reliable and a valuable tool for establishing the intensity and arduousness of work being performed. As the rate increases, the amount of oxygen consumed by the body increases. In fact, it is the demand for the increased amount of oxygen that triggers the increase in heart rate.

The maximal heart rate declines with age, (220 - your age = your maximum heart rate) is generally accepted as the basis for establishing the "red line" for people who are exercising or working in arduous settings. Most people can only sustain high percentages (90 percent) of their heart rate for a short duration.

The studies pretty much shows that aerobic capacity is so important to a firefighter's performance that it provides an independent and necessary indicator of the physical fitness of firefighters to perform the more critical elements of their job. In other words, without cardiovascular fitness, you can't do your job safely or well.

To increase your cardiovascular fitness, you must undertake a regular program of sustained aerobic exercise. Criteria must be met with frequency, intensity, time, and type to be effective. The most effective exercises for producing an improvement in cardiovascular fitness are those that are performed continuously while using large muscle groups. Activities that meet these criteria include jogging, brisk walking, cycling, stair climbing, rope skipping, aerobics, cross country skiing, swimming, rowing, etc.

Firefighters perform their job under the most arduous conditions, enduring high heat and oxygen-deficient environments. Compound this with an intense level of mental stress and you can see the importance of keeping the cardiovascular system in tip-top shape. A cardiovascular workout also lowers serum cholesterol levels, triglyceride levels, and blood pressure, thereby reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis, as well as many other ailments.

The way I look at it in this modern high-pressure world, you cannot afford not to work out. Back to square one with the leading cause of line-of-duty death for firefighters across the country is heart attack, it then seems logical for all fire departments to implement some type of fitness and wellness program.

Flexibility and balance are critical factors in achieving your peak physical potential, but they are overlooked many times. It seems all you hear is "pumping iron" is what you need to do. Not!

A good dose of stretching which is what many people refer to as flexibility now should precede and follow just about any exercise routine the American Council on Exercise says. Flexibility, the ability of a joint to move through its full range of motion, is extremely important for general fitness and wellness. What you achieve by stretching your tight muscles, tendons and ligaments are balance. Balance from all the stresses and strains of everyday life as well as balance in training.

These aspects of fitness is very important to firefighters whose work involves strenuous physical activity, restrictive areas, slippery or otherwise unsafe conditions, awkward and/or heavy loads, requirements for rapid movement, etc.

Flexibility just doesn't help firefighters work with less risk of injury but can also contribute to the following:

  • Increased physical efficiency and performance.
  • Increased circulation.
  • Increased neuromuscular coordination.
  • Improved balance and posture.
  • Reduced stress and tension.
  • Personal enjoyment.

Sounds too good to be true from just doing a few stretches, ha.

Muscular Fitness
For the firefighters, the benefits here are obvious I would think. Carrying heavy equipment to the scene or up many flights of stairs while clad in suffocating, insulated clothing and then being required to perform at full capacity puts tremendous demands of strength and endurance on the human body. Firefighting and rescue work frequently involves moving your body into different positions; therefore, all your muscles need to be strong at every position within their normal range of motion. When we look at muscular fitness it encompasses three properties of muscle tissue:

  • Strength- the maximum amount of force a muscle can generate during a single contraction.
  • Power- the rapid generation of force, or the ability to move loads quickly.
  • Endurance- the ability of a muscle to perform repeated contractions for a prolonged period of time.

Muscular fitness is an entirely separate and unique component of physical fitness, different from flexibility and cardiovascular fitness. The high demands of firefighting require a high degree of muscular fitness. Strength training produces new muscle tissue, which is then available to contract and generate force allowing the job to be done better and safer.

Body Composition
The fourth component of physical fitness is body composition. This is the makeup of the body in terms of relative percentages of body fat to fat-free mass (muscle and bone). A minimum amount of body fat is necessary to cushion and protect body organs from injury. These adipose tissues serve the important function of storing and releasing energy in response to metabolic demands.

If your body's energy intake from eating exceeds your normal energy for daily activities including exercise, the excess energy is stored as body fat. Storage of excess fat enlarges cell size and can increase the number of fat cells in the body (commonly, known as the chubbies). Attaining a healthy body weight and maintaining it over your lifetime should be a goal of every member of the fire service.

Functional Exercises
In closing of this very important topic I wanted to show you several examples of functional exercises and how they relate to preparing for the rigors of the firefighting"

Functional Exercise.........Related Firefighting Skill
Squat................................Stair and ladder climb, hose line operation, Overall strength in transporting heavy equip.
Lunge................................Stair and ladder climb, balance, coordination
Bench Press.....................Hose line operation, hand tool operation, and forcible entry
Standing Curl...................Climbing, pulling yourself through tight places
Shoulder Press................Hose line operation, hand tool operation, pulling ceilings
Rowing..............................Hose line operation, heavy power tool operation and roof sawing.
Sit-up...............................Hose line operation, heavy power tool and overall strength in transport of heavy equipment
Push-ups.........................Hose line operation, hand tool operation.

You can see how important these exercises can make your life as a firefighter safer and healthier if performed in the proper way. As they say knowledge is power. The importance of physical fitness and conditioning for firefighters and emergency responders is beyond any doubt. But just being fit is not enough for this dangerous occupation.

To minimize risks, each firefighter of the department needs to take an active role in managing their health in areas as diverse in nutrition, weight control, stress management, substance abuse prevention, and personal safety. A healthy low-fat eating plan, combined with regular physical activity is the key. But remember, who is a firefighters best friend...water.

BECKY SHEREK is a registered nurse and paramedic program coordinator for the Mesabi Range Community and Technical College in Minnesota. Becky holds two masters degrees, one in Community Health Administration and the other in Wellness Promotion and is a contributor to Minnesota Fire Chief Magazine. She started Northern Health & Fitness Plus, a company that provides on-site medical evaluations and respiratory fit testing, among other services, for fire departments in Minnesota. You can contact Becky at [email protected].

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