This is the third of three articles in the “Preventing Sudden Cardiac Death” series from TACFIT Fire Fighter:
Does your fire department currently have a health and wellness program? If not, establishing a program should be a top priority. These programs not only improve the health of firefighters, but they also save the department money in the long run due to decreased injury and illness. A comprehensive health and wellness program may include:
Annual Medical Exams
Medical exams should include a comprehensive medical questionnaire, vitals, body weight and body composition, a complete cardiac and pulmonary work up, blood work, head to toe physical exam, audiometry, eye exam, diagnostic imaging, and screenings for cancer and other diseases.
Physical Fitness Assessment
A physical fitness assessment should be administered once or twice a year by a certified fitness professional. This may be a fire department peer fitness trainer or an outside consultant. The assessment evaluates body weight and composition, aerobic capacity, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility and movement capability. Individual exercise prescription should also be available.
The IAFF/IAFC Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative developed a peer fitness certification program. These individuals serve as “in house” personal trainers for their departments.
Firefighter Combat Course
The firefighter combat course reflects fireground tasks for structural firefighting. The Scott Firefighter Combat Challenge and the CPAT test are courses that have been established to demonstrate firefighter readiness. You could set up one of these courses each year or you could set up a custom course of your own.
Incident Safety and Rehab
Each department should have specific methods of monitoring firefighters engaged in fire suppression activities and provide adequate rehab to reduce the physiological strain of the incident.
It is up to each firefighter to educate themselves about the physiological strain of the job and the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. We must take a close look at our lifestyle and determine what we can change to improve our performance as firefighters and reduce our risk of sudden cardiac death. Exercise and nutrition have the biggest impact on performance and health.
Firefighters are occupational/tactical athletes and should train as such. A comprehensive firefighter exercise program includes moderate intensity strength training, high intensity metabolic conditioning, no intensity joint mobility, and low intensity compensatory movements. Firefighters must train to perform at max heart rate, but we must also train to recover better. It is the recovery that maximizes health and performance.
Firefighters need to look at food as fuel for performance. It is important to really think about what we are eating and how food is having a positive influence on our body composition, health and performance.
It is also important to consider how stress, sleep, alcohol consumption, smoking and other factors influence our health and well being. The nature of firefighting as an occupation makes lifestyle choices that much more important for us.
The TACFIT Fire Fighter Call To Action
TACFIT Fire Fighter was designed to improve the health, wellness and performance of firefighters. We have had the good fortune of working for progressive departments that prioritize health and wellness. We have also had access to highly respected health and performance experts such as Scott Sonnon. Your journey to improved health and performance starts here:
Answer the following questions and discuss your risk of cardiovascular disease with your physician:
1. Do you have a family history of cardiovascular disease?
2. Do you smoke?
3. Do you have high cholesterol?
4. Do you have high blood pressure?
5. Do you participate in a regular exercise program?
6. Are you obese? What is your body fat percentage?
7. Are you diabetic?
8. Do you eat healthy foods?
Exercise and nutrition have a huge impact on most of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. For the next seven days keep a nutrition journal and exercise log:
Write down what you eat and drink throughout the day. Don’t make any major changes yet. This journal is a reflection of your current nutrient intake. Consult with your physician or peer fitness trainer to get some tips to improve your nutrition.
Record the duration and intensity of each exercise session. The intensity can be based on a rating of perceived exertion or percentage of maximum heart rate. Rating of perceived exertion is based on a 10 point scale:
- RPE 3-4 is low intensity
- RPE 5-7 is moderate intensity
- RPE 8-10 is high intensity
Wearing a heart rate monitor is a more accurate way to gauge intensity. Monitor your heart rate during each session. The intensity is based on percentage of maximum heart rate:
- 65-75% is low intensity
- 75-85% is moderate intensity
- 85-95% is high intensity
Calculate your personal heart rate zones:
1. Calculate your estimated maximum heart rate (HRmax = 220 – age).
2. Count your resting heart rate (RHR) as soon as you wake up each morning. Document the average over 3 days.
3. Calculate your heart rate max reserve: (HRmaxRESERVE = HRmax – RHR).
4. Calculate target heart rate for desired percentage of HRmax: (HRmaxRESERVE x %) + RHR.
For example, a 40 year old firefighter with a RHR of 60 wants to train at high intensity above 85%:
1. HRmax : 220 – 40 = 180
2. RHR = 60
3. HRmaxRESERVE: 180 – 60 = 120
4. Target heart rate: (120 x .85) = 102 + 60 = 162
Training at a heart rate of 162 and above is considered high intensity for this firefighter.
As a fire service, we spend a lot of time and money purchasing and maintaining apparatus and equipment. It is the firefighters who are the most valuable asset to any organization. Fire department health and wellness programs are a vital part of keeping firefighters healthy. We must also take ownership of our health as individuals. Participating in a medical exam and journaling your exercise and nutrition are tremendous first steps in improving your health and reducing your risk of sudden cardiac death. In the coming weeks we will be providing a variety of information specific to firefighter fitness and nutrition to help you improve any problems identified through this process.