It’s not just firefighters who need to be fit. It’s important to promote regular physical activity among dispatcher personnel, too.
By Katie Sell (Ph.D., CSCS) and Bequi Livingston
It goes without saying that increases in physical fitness help facilitate numerous health benefits, such as better musculoskeletal, metabolic, cardiovascular and hemodynamic function. Research suggests that a fitter work force tends to show less absenteeism, lower job-related stress and turnover, and greater productivity, regardless of whether job requirements keep workers primarily at a desk or digging trenches in the field.
This need is magnified for dispatchers, as prolonged sitting is a consequence of the sedentary work environment. Research suggests that prolonged and excessive sitting throughout the day is related to increased risk of body fat retention, poorer cholesterol profiles and increased risk for various hypokinetic illnesses, such as hypertension and Type 2 diabetes. The willingness to engage in regular physical activity or exercise may be further compromised by employees’ exercise aversion, poor eating habits that accompany a high-stress working environment, lack of support from management and contradictory pressures to remain working at desks. Combine that with a busy fire season and the consequences could be detrimental to one’s health.
Smokejumpers, Hot Shots and helitak crews are not the only members of the wildland firefighting crew who need physical fitness.
It is important for all wildland firefighters, dispatchers and support personnel to achieve and maintain a healthful level of physical fitness as part of a complete wellness program, regardless of whether they are held accountable for passing the arduous, moderate or light versions of the Pack Test. The following suggestions provide some ideas for initiating and maintaining a physical activity program within the office environment and promoting a healthy attitude toward physical activity.
Creating an office atmosphere that encourages people to achieve wellness can be challenging but highly achievable, especially when individuals embrace the opportunity to lead by example. The following suggestions are steps that individuals can take to promote positivity and educate others on sound approaches and the overall benefits of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
- Post ideas for promoting physical fitness and living a healthy lifestyle, such as magazine articles or motivational quotes, on notice boards around the office or other communal areas. This will serve as a reminder to incorporate physical activity into daily routine as opposed to making people feel guilty for not previously doing so.
- Identify a representative on your unit/staff to help provide oversight of your program, provide encouragement and track accomplishments. This person need not be an elite athlete, just interested and enthusiastic about promoting exercise and healthful living. However, he or she may also serve as an advocate for incorporating fitness or healthy living information into daily or weekly tailgate safety meetings and annual fire refresher training.
- Provide incentives for personal or group achievements. Incentives could include exercise equipment, such as exercise bands or pedometers, or gift vouchers.
- Be your own cheerleader. Others will see your positive attitude and follow suit. Be a good role model and “walk the talk.”
Be prepared to exercise
Being fit means being physically ready to undertake the daily demands of one’s occupation, but being prepared to get fit or stay fit and healthy takes commitment and preparation. The following suggestions may serve as useful reminders when undertaking a new or improved fitness or wellness program.
- Plan workout time by identifying periods across the daily schedule that can be dedicated to exercise or activity. Try for 30 to 60 minutes three days per week initially, and build to most days of the week.
- Pack workout gear (shoes especially) the night before so it is not forgotten during the morning rush.
- Find a workout buddy. While the social benefits are obvious, having a friend as a workout buddy can help enormously with motivation and enjoyment levels. Friends also serve as useful and important reminders to exercise.
- If unsure, ask questions. Consult a person who is knowledgeable in exercise programming and motivation (such as FireFit personnel). There are also some credible websites at your fingerstips. (See “Physical activity and exercise resources” sidebar.)
- Maintain that positive attitude. It takes time to see results from a fitness program, so be patient and keep exercising regularly. For example, if you are trying to decrease body fat, remember that body fat percentages may decrease without decreases in weight on the scale. However, clothes will start to feel baggier — this means you are on the right track to many health benefits such as decreased strain on joints, connective tissue and your heart.
Make exercise routine
The number-one excuse employees have for not exercising is that they do not have enough time or they are just “too busy” to exercise. By combining work and exercise, that excuse is eliminated! The following suggestions may help identify areas in a daily schedule that present opportunities for incorporating physical activity or exercise.
- Walk a minimum of 8,500 steps daily (using a pedometer). If you are already active, walk a minimum of 10,000 steps daily.
- For every two hours of computer work, step away from the work station and go for a walk around the parking lot, climb the stairs or use available exercise equipment. Use a timer and set it for every 90 to 120 minutes as a reminder.
- Walking is not the only way to exercise – chair aerobics, arm bikes and resistance training can be completed right at your chair (in the office or at home). Light swimming is also a great form of exercise for anyone with limited mobility and/or strength.
- Promote incidental physical activity. Provide and give yourself opportunities to be active. While this will not serve as your only workout for the day, efforts such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or parking farther away from the office so you have to walk a little more, are steps in the right direction.
- Develop a mini-fitness gym in the dispatch center for all to use. The equipment need not be extensive to be effective and enticing – treadmills, exercise bands, balance board/air discs, exercise balls and dumb bells will be popular with the majority of personnel.
- Keep simple exercise equipment at your desk or workspace. Exercise bands, dumb bells, balance boards and even jump rope will allow you to do simple exercises such as tricep dips, bicep curls or lunges right at your desk. This may be especially convenient if there is no area large enough to serve as a gym location within the office or if only limited free time (5 to 10 minutes) is available throughout the day.
- Develop a points system for “active” everyday tasks such as printing a report on the farthest printer from your desk or hand-delivering a document to a co-worker in another room. Add up your points at the end of the day to see who in the office has accumulated the most.
- If financial support for equipment is not available, do not let that limit fitness programming. Get creative with equipment use and the resources available. For example, bicep curls or tricep extensions can be conducted using dumbbells or 32-ounce bottles filled with water.
- Incorporate “stretch-out, stress-free” time or other variations into office-wide “fitness breaks” for all dispatchers. This could be implemented as a group or on staggered schedules to give everyone a chance to participate.
- Emphasize the importance of a physically active lifestyle. Making time for exercise – aerobic, strengthening or stretching – is critical when fire season is busy and stress levels may be higher than usual.
Do not be afraid to try new things. For some people, working out can be daunting and anxiety-provoking, especially if exercise is unfamiliar, they have not lifted or resistance-trained before, or they lack self-confidence in an exercise environment. The following suggestions are important reminders for optimizing productivity and reducing risk of injury.
- Ensure that all participants have completed appropriate medical documentation required for the Work Capacity Test (HSQ) or unit wellness program.
- Always warm up and cool down appropriately when engaging in a fitness routine. A thorough warm-up should consist of light aerobic activity (brisk walking, jogging, light-level cycling) for 5 to 10 minutes, followed by dynamic stretches (butt kicks, high knees) if engaging in sports. The duration of the cool-down may depend on the type and duration of the exercise conducted, but it generally should include light-intensity aerobic activity followed by static stretching.
- Stretches should be part of your exercise program. However, static stretches (holding a stationary pose for 10 to 30 seconds) should be done after an aerobic exercise bout.
- Always work opposing muscles. When you exercise one muscle group, exercise the opposing muscle group equally.
- Tailor any exercise routine to your own individual needs – do not choose a workout plan at random. Do not rely on exercise DVDs that are available commercially. While many of these programs are sound, they are not appropriate for all individuals, especially those starting an exercise program.
- Establish personal physical-fitness goals based on current levels of fitness and health. These goals should be realistic (for an established time frame), action-oriented and measurable. This may involve the administration of fitness assessments and tracking progress on a daily or weekly basis. However, it also will allow you to watch yourself achieve the goals!
More than the gym
Although exercise facilities such as gymnasiums offer a diversity of equipment and exercise opportunities, they are not a necessity for an exercise program or for incorporating physical activity into a daily routine. Physical fitness is only one component of overall wellness – healthful nutritional habits, as well as emotional and psychological well-being, are important components of the big picture. The following suggestions are ideas for promoting personal well-being throughout the day.
- Every time you visit the restroom, get a drink of water. For every cup of coffee or can of soda you drink, drink a full cup of water.
- Bring healthy snacks, such as nuts, whole-grain crackers, yogurt, fruit or raisins, to work and graze throughout the day. Avoid large meals or constant snacking on sweets.
- Take a mental stress break during the day. Find a quiet place, sit or lie down, close your eyes and breathe deeply while relaxing and thinking good thoughts.
- Organize an “e-mail free day,” Fridays perhaps, where employees walk around the office as much as possible to deliver messages and talk to people.
- Physically leave the work station, go outside if possible, and get some exercise. You will be amazed how much this will clear your head.
- Laugh often, smile often and be kind to someone at least once a day.
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Katie Sell, Ph.D., CSCS, is a member of the Department of Health and Human Performance at Hofstra University. Bequi Livingston is a regional fire operations health and safety specialist with the U.S. Forest Service in Albuquerque, N.M.