Firefighter Health and Fitness: A Comprehensive Approach

( International Firefighter )

Dedicating yourself to a lifestyle of health and fitness is more than just “working out.” As a firefighter, you owe it to your co-workers, community, and family to make sure you are fit for duty. In addition to physical training, proper attention to rest and recovery, hydration, and nutrition plays a huge role in maximizing your health and controlling risk factors.

Everyone agrees with the importance of physical training in our line of work. However, what you do with the rest of your day is equally important. In any fire department, the most valuable asset is its people. As an individual, your most valuable asset is your body, which is why attention to rest and recovery, proper hydration, and sensible nutrition have such an enormous impact on your overall health and wellness. Let’s take a look at each of these critical fitness components in more detail.

Rest and Recovery

Think about it—a one-hour workout is only 4% of your day. That means there are 23 other hours to maximize your efforts in the gym. It all depends on how you spend your time during “the rest” of the day. As we share in our book Firefighter Functional Fitness, your body and muscles need ample time to rest, recover, repair, and rebuild.

Two key concepts of adequate rest are passive recovery and active recovery. Let’s examine each and discuss how we as firefighters can get the most out of them.

Passive recovery includes rest apart from workouts and sufficient sleep. To find the right balance between training and rest, avoid overtraining your body and muscles. Overtraining results from consecutive workouts with too much intensity, too much volume, and too much frequency. For example, it would be detrimental to perform high-intensity interval training every day of the week. Your muscles, body, and mind need time to recover and rebuild – that is why it is a good idea to allow 48 hours of rest in between strength training sessions that involve the same group of muscles.

Adequate sleep is vital to our general well-being, but it is also key to improving our fitness. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to a greater risk of weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, immune system dysfunction, fatigue, irritability, impaired mental cognition, and decreased physical performance1. Sleep can be a premium commodity for firefighters, especially those who do shift work.

Maximize your sleep by incorporating these tips2:

  • Always strive to get seven to eight hours of continuous sleep.
  • Sleep in a dark, cool environment with minimal alerts and distractions (for instance, turn off the pager and cell phone alerts)
  • Avoid viewing digital screens for an hour before your bedtime – this includes cell phones, tablets, and even the television.
  • Exercise! Individuals who regularly exercise fall asleep faster and have better quality sleep that those who do not. 
Proper hydration on and off the scene is crucial for firefighter health and performance.

Proper hydration on and off the scene is crucial for firefighter health and performance.

Active Recovery includes physical activities that will accelerate the recovery process. For example, utilizing self-myofascial release (foam rolling) to loosen up overactive and tight muscles will improve flexibility. Improved flexibility translates to better mobility, movement, posture, and reduced injuries.

Other key elements of active recovery are post-workout cool-downs. A typical cool-down incorporates static stretching (“reach and hold”) and dynamic stretching (“stretching with movement), as well as foam rolling. After the conditioning phase of your training session, utilize all three of these methods for a total of five to 10 minutes.

Throughout your week, incorporate at least one stand-alone flexibility training session, such as functional yoga, that lasts 30 to 60 minutes. Basic yoga is a great recovery medium for your body, mind, and emotional well-being.

Active recovery methods such as foam rolling accelerate the recovery process.

Active recovery methods such as foam rolling accelerate the recovery process.

Hydration

Most firefighters know that proper hydration is crucial to physical performance and recovery – that is why it is a fundamental element of NFPA 1584: Standard on the Rehabilitation Process for Members During Emergency Operations and Training Exercises. But what many firefighters don’t know is that dehydration can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Furthermore, chronic dehydration can increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, and even cancer2.

When at the firehouse, most firefighters do not drink enough water. Instead they tend to imbibe a steady flow of caffeinated and sugary beverages – coffee, soda, sweet tea, and energy drinks. Overconsumption of these drinks leads to dehydration and fireground performance impairment.

Here are some practical tips for improving your hydration:

  • When you first wake up, drink a large glass of water before any coffee or food.
  • Use a dedicated water bottle or container and bring it everywhere you go. Drink from it and refill it constantly.
  • Drink water before, during, and after exercise.
  • Consider low-calorie, sugar-free flavor additives to make water more appetizing (for example, citrus fruits or commercial products).

Nutrition

“About 80% of your ability to reduce excess body fat is determined by what you eat, with the other 20% related to exercise and other healthy lifestyle habits such as sleep and stress reduction.” Dr. Joseph Mercola

As a firefighter, your health is dependent upon much more than how often you train in the gym. Any gains you make with your physical training regimen will either be optimized or reduced by the decisions you make with what you eat. So, what are you supposed to eat, and how do you make positive changes in your nutrition that will reduce your health risks?

Depending on the decade, the food industry has historically influenced the American public through campaigns to either encourage or avoid certain types of food. “Carbs are bad,” “Eat more protein,” and “Fat causes heart attacks” are just some of the messages we’ve received over time. And while there are definitely foods to avoid, the true fact of the matter is that not unlike a high-performance race car, in order to get the most out of your body, you must put the right fuel into it. That’s right – food is fuel!

The first step in improving your eating habits is to acknowledge that your “diet” is a lifestyle choice, not a fad to lose weight. In order to be successful, you must make small, positive changes over time rather than focusing on overnight changes. One less soda a day, replaced with one more glass of water, for example, may be the first step toward eventually avoiding soda altogether.

Once you have committed to improving your diet in a sensible manner, you can focus your attention on exactly what you put into your body. There are four primary groups of foods that you should include in your overall nutrition plan:

  1. Fats
  2. Protein
  3. Carbohydrates
  4. Fiber

The important thing to remember is that within each group, there are foods to focus on and foods to avoid.

Fats

Not all fats are bad. In fact, many are very healthy in the right amounts. Your diet should include monounsaturated fats found in foods like avocados and almonds; polyunsaturated fats contained in leafy vegetables and oily fish like salmon and trout; and although often debated, saturated fat, but only that is present in foods like eggs, coconut oil, and naturally raised, grass-fed organic meats.

You must avoid trans fats found in processed foods, meat sticks, biscuits, and donuts, for example. This will go a long way toward reducing your risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and many other potentially life-threatening diseases2. 

Protein

There is no doubt that protein is an important component of your overall nutrition plan. But like anything else, too much protein can be detrimental to your health. The healthiest protein is found in foods like lean poultry, fish, pork, lamb, legumes and nuts. As a firefighter, between 10 and 35 percent of your daily calories should come from protein3.

Carbohydrates

Not all carbohydrates are bad. The right carbs provide the energy you need as a firefighter to maintain a high level of performance. They also deliver essential vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients4. Choose carbohydrates that digest slowly like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. Minimize or eliminate “white carbs” like white rice, white bread, sugar-added foods, sugary drinks, and alcohol.

Fiber

 Fiber-rich foods are essential for proper digestion, gastrointestinal health, and in promoting the feeling of “satiety” or fullness. The United States Food and Drug Administration recommends that men consume 38 grams of fiber daily. For women, 25 grams is your daily target. Fiber-rich foods include fresh fruits like apples, raspberries and pears, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. 

Tips for Nutritional Success

  1. Make small changes to improve your diet, not drastic ones. Celebrate your successes no matter how small, and build on them.
  2. Choose natural foods over processed foods.
  3. Do not eat directly from containers or bags. Focus on portion control by placing food in a bowl or plate and putting the package away.
  4. Out of sight, out of mind: Make sure healthy snacks are visible in the kitchen, and put the bags of chips and cookies away!
  5. Drink more water. Replacing sugary drinks with water will not only improve your nutrition, it will also help to keep you hydrated.

Conclusion

As a firefighter, you made the commitment to be there for your community, and to do that you must be healthy. Physical training is important, but it is only one piece of the health and fitness puzzle. You must commit to a lifestyle of moderation. Getting proper rest, staying hydrated, and fueling your body properly are all key components of your overall fitness plan, and they must be taken seriously. You are not one-dimensional in your fire training, don’t be one-dimensional when it comes to your own health.

For more information go to www.firefighterfunctionalfitness.com or www.nvfc.org