By: Shaughn Maxwell
We would never start our shift without checking to make sure there is fuel and water in the engine or that we have all our medications and medical equipment accounted for in the medic unit, right? If we were to arrive at a critical event without any of these items, it would be challenging if not catastrophic.
Is exercise as important as water in a fire engine or medication in the drug box?
Perhaps the first thing that comes to your mind is that this is going to be another article that advocates for the importance of physical fitness as a firefighter. No, this article is about super-powering your cognition. If we arrive at a complex scene with all the right equipment, yet we cannot deploy our thinking skills effectively, the results could be equally catastrophic.
A recent study published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise sheds more light on the mind-body performance connection, particularly divergent thinking, and cognitive flexibility. These two phenomena are particularly relevant in strengthening our ability to adapt to and respond to the most complex of situations.
Divergent Thinking (DT) is our ability to develop multiple solutions or paths forward when given a challenge or problem. Cognitive Flexibility (CF) is the ability to successfully adapt to environmental circumstances. When we are presented with a patient or a fire, to be successful we must rapidly make sense of the situation and respond with the appropriate action.
Emergency situations are usually evolving and require constant cognitive updating and adapting actions to current and changing circumstances. CF is the ability to almost concurrently change perspective and perception while creating an effective response using DT. An alternative way to think about CF is that without this cognitive ability, it would be nearly impossible to respond to and effect a meaningful difference in any emergency. With that in mind arguably the opposite is true, enhanced CF will likely leverage a better outcome in an emergency response.
Król and Gruszka (2023) conducted research that showed sports and exercise contribute positively to:
- Developing alternative ideas
- Increased processing speed
- More efficient updating of working memory and allocation of attention
Why? The authors posit that exercise results in increased vascularization and improved cerebral blood flow.
This study looked particularly at the influence of sport participation on CF. Even after adjusting for age, gender, and education, CF improved proportionally to exercise frequency. The authors suggest that sports training combined with cognitive tasks can be used as a vehicle to develop CF to effectively address fluid and complex situations.
My conclusion is that this may be one more reason to make fitness a priority, to raise our performance capability when we respond to the most challenging incidents. And this is a two-for-one, super-charging your brain and body at the same time. Complex calls are stressful enough; however, we can mitigate stress by knowing that we did everything within our control to promote a successful outcome.
Would you start exercising if it would improve your performance capability to care for the most complex patients or troubleshoot extremely challenging fires or rescues?
About the Author
Shaughn Maxwell is the Assistant Fire Chief of EMS, Health, Safety and Human Performance at South Snohomish County Fire in South Everett, Washington. He has been in the fire service for 35 years, has a master’s in human factors psychology, and has received numerous national awards for creating innovative programs. Shaughn has a passion for sharing how human factors can enhance responder performance while reducing stress injury. Contact Chief Maxell at [email protected]
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