The 5 Biggest Mistakes Firefighters Make Related to their Health – Mistake #3: Being Inconsistent with Exercise [Part 4 of 6]
Obviously the very biggest mistake a firefighter could make is not doing any exercise at all. Since the majority of firefighters at least do some exercise, I will focus on the problem of inconsistency rather than the entirely bigger problem of inactivity. This article will explain why being inconsistent with exercise, although healthier than being sedentary, is detrimental for firefighters who are on the line.
The major problem that arises when firefighters do not exercise consistently is probably not what you think. Because even just one about of exercise will, in fact, improve insulin sensitivity, boost production of mood altering hormones, stimulate muscle growth and burn calories (albeit, it takes many workouts to compound these effects to a point where they’re even noticeable.) My concern for firefighters who only exercise once-in-a-while is that they are not maintaining an adequate level of aerobic fitness.
As I discussed in the second article in this series, fire suppression and other firefighting tasks can be so physically demanding that firefighters run the risk of overloading their cardiovascular systems if they are not aerobically fit. The unfortunate truth is that it can be difficult to improve aerobic fitness (aka “aerobic capacity”). It requires consistent exercise and the intensity must be at least moderately challenging during each exercise bout. In other words, if an activity is not somewhat difficult, let’s say it’s a leisurely walk, that activity will not elicit any improvements in aerobic capacity.
Now, it’s important to know that any movement is MUCH better than being sedentary in terms of risk for chronic disease, even if it is a leisurely walk. Technically, activity that does not make you breathe harder than normal (a marker of intensity level, secondary to heart rate) is “physical activity,” but not “exercise.” Physical activity of any kind burns more calories than sitting and will reduce one’s risk of developing chronic disease. However, in order to actually create an improvement in fitness, the activity must be of a moderate to high intensity, in which case it is technically exercise. People who have a high aerobic capacity have an even lower risk of developing chronic disease and they are able to carry out more demanding tasks without becoming over-exerted. For firefighters, that translates to a lower risk of experiencing cardiovascular events on-duty.
Most people need to exercise approximately three days per week, at minimum, to improve or maintain a high aerobic capacity. Furthermore, when beginning an exercise program, it takes a minimum of six weeks to observe measurable changes in aerobic capacity. If an individual takes a hiatus from any exercise, typically a decline in aerobic capacity can be observed after only three weeks. So if firefighters are only doing an occasional workout here and there (especially if it’s not really exercise), that is likely not enough to improve their aerobic capacity and protect them from experiencing a heart attack during or as a result of a taxing call.