By: Howard A. Cohen, Deputy Chief (Ret.)
I am not fitness trainer or an athlete nor have I participated in any sort of organized competitive sport for nearly 40 years. I am just a person who unabashedly believes in the importance of physical fitness for everyone, but especially firefighters.
With that disclaimer out of the way, let’s face it: firefighting is a dangerous and physically demanding job. Firefighters operate in harsh and challenging environments, use heavy, hard to handle tools, and wear many pounds of protective gear. To successfully do our jobs we need to keep ourselves in great shape. This means that we must take care of ourselves through proper nutrition and hydration, physical exercise, and sufficient rest. This is what is minimally required to properly and safely perform our jobs.
If you stop and think about it, what is the one “tool” every firefighter uses at every call? It’s our body. We depend on our bodies for all aspects of firefighting. In this sense, firefighters are like elite athletes. While we may not have to jump, sprint, or throw a ball, we are, however, often required to crawl, drag, or haul awkward shaped heavy objects in extreme heat conditions that greatly tax our cardiovascular systems.
But there are important differences too.
Firefighters vs. Elite Athletes
Elite athletes generally perform under optimal conditions. Firefighters respond to calls during the worst weather conditions. Elite athletes typically get a good night’s sleep before their big events. First responders are often woken up multiple times during the night. Elite athletes eat a well-balanced meal with regard to their upcoming sporting event. First responders’ meals are often rushed, gobbled on the run, or interrupted by calls. However, the biggest difference is that for elite athletes, it is all about winning or losing. For firefighters, what’s on the line is often life or death; yours, your fellow firefighter’s or a civilian’s.
The good news is that achieving a firefighter functional level of physical fitness is not hard. However, it does require a commitment to exercise regularly. There are many great ways to hone your fitness level.
Ideally, your fitness program will include a mix of heart-pumping cardiovascular exercises and weight training. Cardiovascular training improves your aerobic capacity, which essentially means your heart’s ability to pump oxygenated blood through your system. Aerobic exercises involve repeatedly moving large muscles. As you work out, you will breathe faster and deeper. This enables your heart to increase blood flow to your muscles and back to your lungs. This happens because the small blood vessels widen to deliver more oxygen to your muscles and at the same time carry away waste products. In addition, during cardiovascular exercise your body releases endorphins, which are natural painkillers that promote an increased sense of wellbeing.
Different cardio-vascular exercises
There are many excellent types of cardio-vascular exercises. Familiar examples include running, cycling, stair climbing, or even just walking. More involved forms of cardiovascular workouts include high intensity interval training, HIIT for short, and Tabata workouts. HIIT workouts consist of repetitions of high-intensity exercises near maximum intensity separated by either medium intensity exercises or recovery rest. Studies show that high-intensity interval training is not only an excellent form of cardiovascular training, but also has a significant impact on our anaerobic system.
If you don’t have a lot of time to workout, then a great option is a Tabata workout. Named for Dr. Izumi Tabata, this is an intense workout program consisting of pushing yourself for 20 seconds as hard you can, then resting for 10 seconds. Typically a Tabata workout consists of at least three sets of eight rounds for a total of 12 minutes.
Ways to boost workouts
If you are one of those types of people who just can’t get excited about doing cardiovascular workouts, there are still easy ways to boost your aerobic capacity. Take the stairs instead of an elevator whenever possible. Studies show that it is just as fast to climb two or three flights of stairs as it is to take the elevator. When you go shopping, park your vehicle so you have a long walk to the entrance of the store. Get yourself a dog and start taking your new friend for walks.
The key to building your aerobic capacity is moving your body and getting your heart rate up. Here are 10 benefits of cardiovascular training:
- Keep excess pounds at bay
- Increase your stamina, fitness, and strength
- Ward off viral illnesses
- Reduce your health risks
- Manage chronic conditions
- Strengthen your heart
- Keep your arteries clear (alongside a good diet)
- Boost your mood
- Stay active and independent as you age
- Live longer
It is also critical for firefighters to combine strength or weight training, also called resistance training, with cardiovascular training.
Resistance Training for Firefighters
Resistance training works muscles to causes them to adapt and get stronger, similar to the way aerobic conditioning strengthens your heart. Weight training can be performed with free weights, such as barbells and dumbbells, by using weight machines, your own body weight, or resistance bands. However you choose to workout, make sure your resistance training involves pushing, pulling, lifting, carrying, and dragging. And don’t forget to work on core strength and flexibility.
The biggest obstacle to sticking with a fitness plan is boredom. Therefore, it is important for you to find or create a routine that holds your interest. Mix it up too. Don’t do the same workout day after day. Work out with a friend or others from your department. Check out YouTube and the internet for thousands of high-quality programs. There are also excellent workout programs available online that are specifically designed for firefighters. For people who like books, check out the exceptional book Firefighter Functional Fitness: The Essential Guide to Optimal Firefighter Performance and Longevity by Dan Kerrigan and Jim Moss.
Creating Your Ideal Firefighting Program
To the extent that your schedule permits, it is helpful to make your fitness program a fixed and regular part of your daily routine. Some people like to get their workouts in early in the morning. This way no matter how the rest of the day unfolds it’s a good day because you got your workout in. Other people like to workout at the end of the day. This way, no matter what kind of day they have, they have something to look forward to. Personally, I get my workout in every morning after having two cups of black tea and reading the headlines in the paper. After my workout I’m ready for whatever is coming by way. Whatever you do, whenever you workout, make it fun so that you will keep doing it.
Are there downsides to exercise?
There are no downsides to exercise and being physically fit, period. Hopefully this article will inspire you to find and commit to a personal fitness program that excites and motivates you. Remember, physical fitness has been shown to prevent or treat many chronic health conditions brought on by unhealthy lifestyles – it even counteracts some of the aging process. It also helps to reduce injuries that can keep you from working. Finally, don’t forget that physical fitness involves more than just working out. It also includes taking care of your body by eating well, keeping yourself well-hydrated, getting sufficient sleep, and avoiding or limiting ingesting harmful chemicals, such as alcohol, recreational drugs, or tobacco. Now get moving and get your heart pumping!
Howard A. Cohen retired from the Bennington (VT) Fire Department as a deputy chief. He spends a lot of time writing and teaching various aspects of firefighting. Cohen religiously works out every morning, doing a mix of high intensity interval training (HIIT), dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, and cycling. He is the virtual training coordinator for Africa Fire Mission and an active member of the National Volunteer Fire Council.
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