6 ways firefighters can prioritize health and wellness

One chief's tips and recommendations to balance fitness, sleep and relaxation

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Summer is one of my favorite times of year, not only because I like sweating my butt off but also because I savor my time in the sun, mainly the few minutes a week I get at the pool. In fact, pool time is part of my personal wellness routine, which also includes writing and working with my hands. Rounding out my health focus, I exercise six days a week, eat a healthy diet and drink a lot of water – all part of my overall mission to take care of my body.  

Today I'd like to share some guidance for how to take care of your personal wellness – and how you can watch out for your crewmembers' health, too. Consider these six simple recommendations that help me focus on health, then ask yourself how you prioritize your health.

Firefighters shouldn’t necessarily train, physically, in the same manner as athletes. Whereas athletes generally train for seasons, we train for every single day.
Firefighters shouldn’t necessarily train, physically, in the same manner as athletes. Whereas athletes generally train for seasons, we train for every single day.

1. Read: ‘Firefighter Functional Fitness’ 

I’m a workout junkie, so I’ve carefully honed what works for me when I hit the gym. But you might not feel as certain about how functional fitness fits into your routine.

I encourage every firefighter or prospective firefighter to read “Firefighter Functional Fitness” by Dan Kerrigan and Jim Moss. One core point in the book is that firefighters shouldn’t necessarily train, physically, in the same manner as athletes. Whereas athletes generally train for seasons, we train for every single day.

Check out the book to learn more about firefighter-focused training. 

2. Plan: Firefighter annual physicals 

While they are certainly not the only fire service leaders promoting physical fitness, Kerrigan and Moss include in their book an important discussion about NFPA-compliant annual physicals and their passion to combat the epidemic of firefighter cardiovascular disease.

Backing them up is fire service researcher Dr. Sara Jahnke, who outlines the key reasons firefighters should take part in annual physical assessments. Check out her article here to learn more. 

3. Sleep: Some is better than none 

This is a tough nut to crack for many busier departments – I get it. Sleep deprivation, however, has proven to have cognitive impacts that could jeopardize your clarity of purpose in extreme decision-making moments.

I encourage you to check out the St. Catherine University study, “Sleep Deprivation and the Health of Firefighters,” which recognizes the impact of odd shift and call patterns, and suggests key sleep goals, because, let’s face it, some sleep is always better than none. 

4. Create: Personal fitness programs 

Over the years, I’ve followed various plans and programs for both weight loss and exercise development. No two plans are the same and, more importantly, no two bodies will react the same way to different plans.

I encourage younger folks joining the fire service to find a coach or program that works for them. One place to start is Fire Rescue Fitness operated by Firefighter Aaron Zamzow. The site offers a quiz to find out which workout program is best for you to achieve some structure and accountability. 

5. Research: Fire service garb 

In the summer heat, we find ourselves in various attires – uniforms, protective gear, not to mention in tight spaces and intense environments. Making sure we present a professional image in the heat can be tricky for some. Does your department have a policy that identifies triggers to dress-down? Is it time to identify a “summer uniform”?

My advice here is twofold: 1. Draft a policy and 2. Research uniform options that work in hot weather. We’ll get you started with this guide to buying uniforms 

6. Relax: Mindfulness matters 

What do you do to relax? For me, it’s time at the pool, with my dogs and in the gym. You notice none of this involves the fire department! I also connect trips with picture-taking moments – sunrises, wildlife, weather phenomena or other interesting settings bring calm to most beasts. Capturing life-in-action is cathartic for me.

If you need a little help finding ways to relax, I encourage you to check out the Mindfulness-Based Attention and Training Firefighter Project, which focuses on mindfulness for people in high-stress occupations like ours. 

How do you prioritize your health? Share your ideas in the comments below.

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