It’s no secret that the overall state of health in the US is not ideal. In spite of physical activity slightly increasing and smoking continually decreasing, diabetes is skyrocketing. Although it seems to have started to level off in 2013, obesity continues to plague nearly 30% of the adult population.
Of course, one doesn’t have to be obese to be limited physically by extra weight. Though a few extra pounds may not be an issue for the average Joe, firefighters demand much more from their bodies; the ability to perform at a very high level in very dangerous situations could mean the difference between life and death. Yet obesity/overweight rates in firefighters, both wildland and structural, is staggering. It far surpasses the national average according to a CNN report released on July 18, 2014. The same report also mentions that over half of all firefighter deaths are due to heart disease. Though perhaps daunting, these facts cannot persist. So, in true firefighter fashion, we are going to confront this problem head on with three effective strategies:
- Become an H2O-holic
Everyone knows that water is good for you, yet this truth cannot be repeated enough. Recommendations are to ingest 10+ glasses a day (yes, this was just recently upped from 8), but the average consumption in the US is about a third of that. For firefighters, especially when on the job or training, this need can be even more exaggerated. A good starting place for any person who desires optimum health is to drink half of your body weight in ounces every day (i.e.: John, a 200lb firefighter, should be consuming 100oz of water a day, or approx.. 10-11 glasses, when off duty). This may seem like a lot, but you can make it easier:
- Carry a water bottle AT ALL TIMES. This will provide you with easy access to water and will better enable you to reach your goal by making the healthy option the most convenient one. Additionally, if you have a consistent unit of measure, you can better keep track of your intake (i.e.: John carries a 25oz water bottle and knows after the 4th fill up that he’s almost met his goal for the day). Check out these wildland-friendly hydration systems and start drinking more right away!
- “But… I hate the taste of water?!” If this is you, rest assured, it get’s easier. Your body loves water whether you realize it or not, and though it may seem like it ‘doesn’t taste good’ it really just doesn’t contain the same brain-chemical-teasers that soda, energy drinks, and other popular beverages contain (if you’ve ever thought that you might be addicted to these liquid-sugar-concoctions you were right; the chemicals used are designed to keep you craving more). To ease yourself into replacing your ‘usual’ with water, don’t be afraid to dress it up: fruit, mint leaves, and even veggies like cucumbers not only enhance the flavor of your water, but they can also provide an extra boost of vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals too!
- Create cues for yourself. If/then or when/then rules can help you remember to drink your water if you’re having trouble keeping it at the forefront of your mind. For example: (when) I wake up (then) I drink a glass of water; or: (if) I have a craving (then) I drink a glass of water; and: (if) I go into my Ranger pack (then) I drink from my Camelbak, etc.
- Focus on Nutrition
Being an extremely active and physically taxing profession, it’s a wonder why firefighters have such a high rate of health issues… right? Actually, all that physical activity can be easily sabotaged by what you put into your mouth. An easy equation to remember is that health = 80% nutrition + 20% fitness. That means if you want to be healthy, you HAVE TO be mindful of what you eat. Additionally, it’s important to remember that just because something claims to be healthy (‘low fat,’ ‘non-fat,’ ‘sugar free,’ etc) doesn’t mean it is. Food products often contain chemical ingredients that act similarly to those in addicting sugar beverages, and it’s for the same reason: so that you want more of the product. The reality however is that your body doesn’t truly want these unnatural compounds. It can’t use them. It doesn’t recognize them as food, and is actually treating these common ‘ingredients’ like toxins: wrapping them in adipose (fat) tissue to protect you from them. Yet, the chemical reaction in your brain makes you feel like you ‘have to have _X_’ because, like a drug addict, you crave the stimulus it provides. Knowing the truth is your first step towards completely overcoming the deception. Here are a few guidelines to help you choose real, quality foods that will nourish you from the inside out and promote optimal health:
- I just can’t say it any better: “if you can’t pick it or kill it, don’t eat it!” I first saw this used on FirefighterFurnace.com but it seems the phase has been floating around the internet for a while now, starting with the ‘paleo’ movement. Essentially, our bodies evolved along side plants and animals for countless years and as a consequence, these elements maintain a synergistic relationship with our biology. The ‘food products’ that the majority of Americans consume today however didn’t even exist fifty years ago. As I mentioned earlier, your body actually hoards fatty tissue to use as means of a defense against these foreign entities. Thus, the only way to lose the fatty tissue and truly improve your health is to stop eating toxic ‘food.’
- Now, before you go chowing down on BBQ, keep in mind that even though meat isn’t necessarily ‘unnatural’ it can be adulterated with hormones, antibiotics, and even dyes that make grey meat appear red and ‘fresh’ – yes, this is approved by the FDA. It’s best to only eat high-quality organic meats that were humanely raised (for the benefit of not ingesting ‘emotional toxicity’ or the stress hormones that build up in the muscle tissues of abused and neglected stock animals) and grass fed (corn and ‘feed meal’ is inflammatory to cattle, causing infection which is then passed on to you). Additionally, there is a debate about how much protein you need and whether meat is the best source. There is a lot of research to support both sides of this argument and we encourage you to look into it more for yourself. From a globally ecological, economical, and sustainable viewpoint however, cutting back on your meat consumption is one of the most responsible things you can do.
- Focus on: PLANTS. The more research that goes into nutrition and health science the more we find out about just how amazing plants like fruits and vegetables are for our bodies. In addition to vitamins and minerals, fresh produce nourishes your ‘gut biology,’ aiding digestion with high fiber content (BONUS: they help to detoxify you of processed gunk). Though it might seem difficult, plants can be the cornerstone of your diet. Try replacing pasta with squash noodles, add super greens to fruit smoothies, commit to having either a veggie soup and/or salad everyday, and pack fresh fruit as snacks to make sure you’re fueling yourself right. Go ahead and treat yourself with food that makes you feel great, make up for all the times when your only options are MREs!
- Eat more FAT! Yes, you read that right, you need to include more fat in your diet. We’re not talking about poor quality, propagated fats that the food industry pumps into its products, but rather the highest quality fats on the market. Integrate the best by including full-fat, grass-fed, butter and ghee into your meals or supplement with coconut oil (a great option for cooking too). Of course, fish oils can also be beneficial but insure you’re avoiding toxic mercury by sticking with high quality krill oil. For more information about how essential fat is in helping you achieve optimal health, check out biohacker Dave Asprey at www.bulletproofexec.com or his book The Bulletproof Diet.
- Make Your Movements Matter
Of course, we couldn’t talk about health without including fitness! This may be something you believe you do not need to incorporate because of how physically demanding firefighting is, but there are some great studies indicating that the intensity and quality of your workouts (and the recovery process) are much more important than the quantity. Even as little as one 20 min session of weight lifting per week can be extremely beneficial for you. Doubtful? Hear us out:
- HIGH-INTENSITY, SLOW & FOCUSED STRENGTH TRAINING: It’s been shown that by using high intensity methods and pushing oneself to ‘muscle fatigue’ in short strength training sessions once a week (to allow for optimal recovery = when the muscle building happens) can drastically improve physical fitness and strength (even if you’re extremely fit already and have hit a plateau)! Don’t believe us? Check out the peer reviewed research in the book Body by Science by Doug McGuff M.D., and John Little.
- Another interesting trick that’s bouncing around in the gym is called ‘negative resistance training:’ “eccentric muscle action (A.K.A. negative resistance training) occurs when the muscle lengthens in a controlled manner.”  In order to do this type of exercise you will again be weight training (strength training is quickly proving to be the best form of training for optimum health), but rather than trying to do as many reps as possible, you will be doing the reps as slowly as possible. By slowing down you’re increasing the control your muscles have to have over the weight in order to complete each rep, drastically increasing the effectiveness of your workout (you will see this type of technique talked about in the above mentioned book as well).
- Sneak in movement. This is especially important if you spend a lot of time sitting at a desk or driving. Find a way to walk for ten minutes after lunch, take a five minute break to do squats when your legs get stiff, walk around the department and check in with everyone – get creative! The NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) created in people who ‘fidget,’ or find little ways to incorporate more movement into their days, maintain healthier weights and have better overall health than those who do not.
- Last but not least: make it fun and make it social! Firefighterfurnace.com has a great program that will provide you with firefighter centric workouts for one as well as groups of four. So go ahead, take that next meeting up a notch and get everyone moving! Throw on a weight vest to make it even more challenging or to prepare for a field test!
Your passion and commitment to serving others is just one more reason for you to take the best possible care of yourself! Thank you for everything you do! Let us know what you think and comment with any great tips we left out.