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Some Benefits of Exercise for First-Responders

Updated: Feb 26

911 Training Institute

I am a gym rat; always have been. And I know my father is to blame for it. But the active lifestyle he instilled in me followed me into my law enforcement and 9-1-1 career and ultimately helped save me.

With only an average build, dad stands about 5’7, but his humble stature hides a Herculean strength. There are legendary stories about him doing one-armed chin-ups, one-armed push-ups, and bouncing an illegally parked Volkswagen Beetle into a single parking space in order to teach the car-owner a lesson in courteous parking etiquette.

We had this extra, make-shift garage that dad transformed into a personal gym at our house when I was a kid. Although it was small in space, it had everything: stair-climber, treadmill, stationary bike, resistance machines, and free weights. Dad would come home from a long day at work and spend over an hour out there at least 5 days a week, and many times I would sit out there and watch him pump the iron.

When I was about 8-years-old, my family went to the county fair. My middle brother and I went into a photo booth where they take your picture and then super-impose your face on to the body of someone else as a gimmick. My brother chose Joe Montana, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers at the time. Me? I chose this unknown bodybuilder. So they take my 8-year-old face and make it the head on this mountain of a man flexing all his chiseled muscles to be the next Mr. Olympia. And when I hit my 13th birthday, dad let me start working out with him regularly. It was about this time when I was in middle school that I also fell in love with long distance running. I would be a competitive runner for the next 10 years of my life through high school and college.

Once upon a time, I was good at it. Although I am much older now and my body cannot take the beating it once could, I still like to pick up heavy things and put them down, or lace up my shoes and go out running. Few things in life bring me greater pleasure than when I am working out or logging in the miles. It is my therapy and it is euphoric. With every rep and every step, the exhaustion I feel lets me somehow relate to the pain of all the callers I once spoke with on 9-1-1, as if now we share in a suffering together. It is indescribable, which proves working out and running does more for me than simply keep my body physically fit.

Research has long shown the physical benefits to exercise. Aside from the obvious benefit of strengthening muscles, exercise also helps control body weight by boosting metabolism, increasing bone density, improving the cardiovascular and immune systems, and reducing the risk of some diseases and chronic pains[1]. But did you know there are also psychological benefits to exercise? Unfortunately, these often get overlooked. However, the psychological benefits may play a more vital role to overall wellness, specifically to those who work in high-stress industries, like first-responders.

According to an article in U.S. News & World Report, firefighters, patrol officers (police officers), and paramedics rank among “The 25 Most Stressful Jobs”[2]. Public-safety dispatchers who answer 9-1-1 emergency calls should also be included in this discussion with first-responders. These professions require split-second decision making that could have life or death outcomes, thereby placing immense psychological and emotional responsibility on first-responders to help and protect others.

Visual and auditory memories from exposure to traumatic incidents can weigh heavily on the hearts and minds of first-responders. That exposure can sometimes make first-responders question their skills and regret words or actions taken (or not taken) in handling an incident. The exposure to trauma and chronic stress can possibly lead to serious occupational stress-related injuries, bleeding over into all areas of life not just work. And aside from these psychological concerns, dispatchers should keep in special mind their physical health because they have a sedentary job of sitting in a chair behind computers for several hours. Therefore, finding a healthy outlet for stress is vital because it can exponentially accumulate with every shift.

Exercise is one option that provides your body with that outlet. Think of it as a form of therapy. Physical workouts allow your body to vent feelings of anger, frustrations, and other negative emotions, regardless if you are consciously aware of them. It also helps free your mind from the prison of compulsively dwelling on the stress to which you are constantly exposed. Furthermore, there is something to be said for pushing the limits of your body. It is empowering, which can increase your self-confidence and boost your mood. So the next time work has you feeling stressed, consider these steps:

  • Think about the benefits: aside from losing weight, toning up, or just getting in better shape, think about the psychological benefits to relieving stress and improving your mental health.

  • Take action: you know you need to and you know you want to, so let this be motivation and get to it!

  • Develop a plan: most people fail in their exercise routines because they do not have a plan. Consult a professional trainer to help develop a plan that works best for you.

  • Find a workout buddy: accountability is key to success. Find a coworker or friend and start a program together, or join a boot camp with a community of other people.

  • Track your progress: it can be difficult to see results if you have no comparison. Keep a journal or use an app to track your workouts so you can see your progress over time.

Consult your personal physician or a professional trainer before starting any type of rigorous workout routine. Start slow and easy and work into a routine; there is no need to immediately start training for the Olympics. Remember, any physical activity, no matter how little, is better than nothing. So grab your shoes, grab a friend, and hit the gym.

Work Cited and Suggested Reading

[1] Mayo Clinic, (2020). Aerobic exercise: Top 10 reasons to get physical. Retrieved August 29, 2021.

[2] Williams, G. (2021, March 15). The 25 Most Stressful Jobs. U.S. News & World Report.

Kerrigan, D., & Moss, J. (2016). Firefighter functional fitness: The essential guide for opitmal firefighter performance & longevity. Firefighter Toolbox LLC.

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