How first responders can improve resilience with fitness and nutrition

Aaron Zamzow explains how eating healthy and staying fit makes you a happier person and a more resilient first responder


“EAT RIGHT, EXERCISE, DIE ANYWAY.”

This statement was printed on a T-shirt I received as a gift at one of my crew holiday parties. In the firehouse fitness is one of the topics we all like to joke about. My favorite exercise is feet up in the leathers. My fitness is seeing how many hotdogs I can fit in my mouth. The list goes on and on.

Don’t get me wrong, I do get a chuckle from the creativity members of the fire service employ to joke about fitness. But all joking aside, there are times when everyone questions the validity of staying fit and healthy. Is it really worth it? I got asked the other day, “If you get hit by a bus or fall through a roof, was all the time doing burpees and push-ups worth it?.” Without a doubt, I answered “Yes!”

"Get moving, eat right and take a mental break each day, and you will improve your mood, your health, your fitness—and you will be a better first responder," writes Zamzow. (Photo/Getty Images)

When we talk about fitness in the fire service there still seems to be a connotation that we are referring to big biceps and getting ripped for the calendar. Both of which are fine, but there is more to fitness and more positive effects of working out that we all need to start to embrace and promote.

Put simply, eating healthy and staying fit makes you a happier person and a more resilient first responder.

What Is Resilience?

Resiliency is the ability of an individual to bounce back from traumatic events and to deal with stresses in healthy ways. A resilient first responder uses effective coping strategies to adapt well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress. They miss fewer days of work; can provide more compassion to those they service and have greater job satisfaction and career longevity. The two best coping strategies any every first responder has at their disposal are maintaining good fitness and eating a healthy diet.

Before we dig into the reasons why exercise and nutrition are the best ways to build resilience, we need to discuss what happened to our bodies when we experience stress.

What Is Inflammation?

Inflammation refers to your body’s process of fighting against things that harm it, such as infections, injuries, toxins (including poor nutrition) and stress. Your body produces the stress hormone cortisol to regulate the inflammatory and immune response. Prolonged stresses like a lack of sleep, relationship issues, difficult calls and even the foods you eat can lead to hyper-physiological levels of cortisol, which alters its effectiveness. Diets that promote inflammation are high in refined starches, sugar, saturated and trans-fats, and low in omega-3 fatty acids, natural antioxidants and fiber from fruits, vegetables and whole grains.[1]

All these stressors can add up and cause a chronic state of inflammation that can lead to numerous health problems, including heart disease, arthritis, depression, post-traumatic stress, and cancer.[2] Sound familiar? These are the major health issues facing the fire service.

How to Control Stress and Inflammation

The good news: Research shows regular exercise and a diet low in sugar and high in antioxidants (fruits and vegetables) can dramatically reduce inflammation in the body (and mind).

We all know exercise can boost physical appearance and performance. It can also improve cognitive thinking, memory and mood. Exercise has been shown to decrease feelings of depression, anxiety and stress, which leads to better decision-making (especially under stress).

Research also indicates that one of the best ways to reduce inflammation lies not in the medicine cabinet, but in the refrigerator. Diets high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish and healthy oils are linked to lower levels of inflammation.

You may not think your meal choices or your exercise routine have an impact on how you process traumatic calls or the rigors of shift work, but they absolutely do, precisely because they help you regulate inflammation and cortisol levels. This is the connection between resiliency and fitness.

3 Steps to Improve Your Resiliency

Becoming a more resilient firefighter is simple—note that I didn’t say “easy,” because sticking to healthy habits does take work. But it’s not complicated. Consider these three steps.

Step #1: Get Moving!
Exercise at least three times per week for 30–45 minutes. Include full-body strength exercises to make the most out of your time. Workouts should also focus on mobility and core strength.

Step #2: Eat to Perform
Drink at least 80 ounces of water a day. Eat real foods that do not contain artificial ingredients or large amounts of added sugar. Obey your mother and eat your fruits and vegetables and consume healthy fats (e.g., nuts, olive oil, avocado).

Step #3: Mind Your Business
Incorporate 5–10 minutes of “quiet time” each shift. Focus on taking deep breaths and slowing down your heart rate. Close your eyes and focus on the non-visual aspects of your environment. Try to slow down your mind; think of something you are grateful for. All these small tasks can lead to a decrease in stress.

A more resilient first responder will find ways to positively manage the stress of the job and life. Exercise and good nutrition are your secret weapons to building resilience. Get moving, eat right and take a mental break each day, and you will improve your mood, your health, your fitness—and you will be a better first responder.

References and Resources

  1. Giugliano D, Ceriello A, Esposito K. The effects of diet on inflammation – Emphasis on the metabolic syndrome. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2006;48:677–85. Accessed 12/11/21 from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0735109706013350?via%3Dihub.
  2. Segerstrom S, Miller G. Psychological stress and the human immune system: A meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychol Bull. 2004;130(4):601–630. Accessed 12/11/21 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361287/.
  3. Dimitrov S, Hulteng E, Hong S. Inflammation and exercise: Inhibition of monocytic intracellular TNF production by acute exercise via β2-adrenergic activation. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. 2017;61:60–68. Accessed 12/11/21 from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0889159116305645.
  4. Dimitratos S. (2018) Inflammation: What is it and how can by diet and behavior affect it? American Society for Nutrition. Accessed 12/11/21 from: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0889159116305645https://nutrition.org/inflammation-what-is-it-and-how-can-my-diet-and-behavior-affect-it/.
  5. Henry Ford Health System. (2018) Inflammation and your diet: What’s the connection? Accessed 12/11/21 from: https://www.henryford.com/blog/2018/05/inflammation-and-your-diet-whats-the-connection.
  6. Harvard Health Publishing. (2021) Foods that fight inflammation. Accessed 12/11/21 from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/foods-that-fight-inflammation.

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