Exercise Does More Than You Think
By: Jada Hudson, M.S., LCPC, CADC
Your world is busy. From the time your shift starts at the firehouse, you are on your feet taking care of things. When you get home, there are all the projects your wife is asking you to help with that you’d really like to get done. Then, there’s your kids, who have performances, practices, and commitments, and you do your best to be there for them. But, where’s that leave you? You hardly have time for the things you have to do, let alone the things you should be doing. Like, who has time to exercise, read, eat healthy, or even sleep?
Even amidst the busyness of being a firefighter and a family man, I would argue that the best version of yourself is going to be available to your family and colleagues, if you work out. Making time can be difficult, but here’s why it matters: Exercise develops you physiologically, physically, and emotionally, and it breaks the power of stress in your life.
Chris Marella, a full-time firefighter/paramedic and Owner of 4th Shift Fitness. He served 5 years part-time and has spent the past 10 as professional full-time firefighter. He explains how stress affects firefighters:
“When we begin to define stress as it truly is, we can start to handle it differently. Stress is quite simply, a challenge to react and adapt to a changing situation. When we view it as such, we start to realize that everything is stress. Tying your shoes, walking to your car, getting fired, it’s all stress! Stress in the fire service has the same spectrum. From discovering a dirty tool, to expecting to do one sign off at a car accident and ending up with four, to any high-risk fire ground rescue operation. Now, the level of reaction to that stress can certainly affect us both mentally, emotionally and physically. When you encounter stressors, chemicals start flying. Stress receptors in your brain are shooting signals, activating all kinds of hormones controlling heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure and blood sugar, just to name a few. All these things culminate in the face of elevated stress as the “Fight or flight” reaction. So, you either grab your spear and kill the lion, or throw your hands up and run away screaming, except that neither of those reactions are quite appropriate in today’s society. So, we end up suppressing one of the most powerful and primal natural reactions we have, in an effort to remain composed and useful in the back of the ambulance, or on the fire ground. Now, you have all sorts of crazy corrosive and high-power chemicals pumping through your system and all you can usually do, is sit there and continue to think about how stressed you feel.”
The problem, for firefighters, is that you are often called into situations where you can only do so much. Your body’s fight or flight chemicals are firing, but you may be prevented, in some way, from being able to fully help the patient or even yourself. When this happens, those survival chemicals just sit in your muscles. This becomes one of the most harmful physical situations when it comes to your mental state.
Psychologists have begun researching how stress hormones and PTSD are linked, and they have discovered that individuals physically exercise stress chemicals out of their bodies. Through a program called mind body intervention (MBX), which is similar to yoga and deep breathing – each nurse struggling with PTSD showed reduced cortisol serum levels in their bodies and reduced symptoms of PTSD.
Clearly, stress is both mental and physical. Our bodies are vessels of stress hormones. We can either use them up, as we fight to rescue people and fight fires, or we can get thwarted and saturate our bodies with them. Either way, our bodies require physical movement to remain emotionally and physically healthy.
In addition to removing the power of stress in your life, here are three ways exercise improves your performance as a firefighter:
1. Physiological Toughness
When you exercise, you build what psychologists call “physiological toughness”. Basically, your body is better able to ramp up its fight or flight responses, pump blood more efficiently, breathe more effectively, and use the best of your strength to tackle a physically demanding call.
Here’s how it works:
Your body responds to an intense situation by ramping up the chemicals in your brain and muscles to empower you for action. Specifically, when you get amped up, your brain and body release noradrenaline (norepinephrine), your body releases adrenaline (epinephrine), and your brain releases dopamine. All of these actions work together simultaneously to help you act to the best of your ability to resolve the situation. Likewise, your body releases cortisol to mobilize your energy stores, trigger your central nervous system, and inhibit your immune system. Cortisol, in excess, actually inhibits your performance. But, did you know that you can actually train your body to respond with maximum adrenaline, noradrenaline, and dopamine and a limited amount of cortisol?
Physiological toughness can be built through three factors, according to Simon Moss (2016):
Exposure to a stressful event (i.e. one study monitored individuals exercising in a cold pool)
A coinciding sense of control over the stressor (i.e. you choose when to jump into the pool and how long you stay in)
Adequate recovery time (i.e. time before having to do it again)
These three factors, when repeated, establish a pattern of physiological response to subsequent challenging events, which enhance your emotional stability and performance.
Studies show that individuals who willingly undertake stressful situations in which they have control, such as swimming in cold water, show rapid and intense spikes in adrenaline in response to stressful tasks. These adrenaline spikes tend to enhance performance. They also show a rapid rise in noradrenaline and a limited increase in cortisol, so their bodies experience a rise in heart rate, sharpened mental activity, relatively constant blood pressure, efficient conversion of fat to energy, which increases muscular activity.
Human bodies are amazingly adaptive! Your mind and body can learn to be better at dealing with intense events based on the things you expose yourself to. If you experience stressful events on the job, but you have some degree of control over them, and you have sufficient recovery time afterward, this same development of physiological toughness can occur (they call this passive toughening). More likely, however, you will have control over your own exposure to stressful/challenging things when it comes to the things you intentionally push yourself to do, like exercise (they call this active toughening). Childhood experiences, which individuals have adequately recovered from, can also create physiological toughness. This is based on studies conducted in 1980 by scientists Frankenhaeuser, Lundberg, and Forsman, and in 1989 by scientist R. A. Dienstbier.
I would argue that this goes beyond swimming in a cold pool to include any sort of challenging exercise that you have control over and adequate recovery time. As you take yourself outside your comfort zone and give yourself adequate recovery time, you will actually become better at your job!
Fitness Expert, Chris Marella says, “By giving yourself a physical outlet, we are able to activate your stress response, take it to the limit, and follow through with action! We get to use all those gnarly chemicals in physical display. By putting your stress response through its paces, we also build a little bit of “Stress Armor” every time. Imagine each workout as a brick. Every time we hit that level of intensity, we add a brick to the wall that protects us from being ‘stressed out’.”
Studies have shown that individuals with physiological toughness usually show less fear or avoidance in stressful contexts in the future, and they perform better, usually. And, emotionally, as they think about the event they are about to face, they tend to conceptualize these events as challenges rather than threats. The elevated levels of adrenaline somehow prevent fearful or avoidant responses.
So, in case you were thinking that exercise doesn’t make that big of a difference, think again. You will be a better firefighter, physiologically able to meet the demands of the job, if you push yourself to exercise. On top of that, you will be less likely to experience harmful cortisol dumps into your muscles, which are usually linked to PTSD and negative emotional outcomes.
2. Physical Health & Longevity
Not only does exercise increase your physiological toughness, but it builds your physical longevity. This, your family will thank you for.
When you exercise and breathe deeply, you activate your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which is responsible for rest, digestion, and a general sense of wellbeing. When you are constantly in a state of being stressed or aroused for action, your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) takes over. After emergencies are over, SNS can continue to be activated by flashbacks, memories, or a continual state of arousal. Chronic activation of the SNS can create mental, emotional, and physical health problems. PTSD is an example of over-activation of SNS.
When the SNS is over activated, it can result in cardiovascular problems, including hardening of arteries and heart attacks, gastrointestinal issues of all sorts, including IBS, chronic diarrhea, and constipation, immune system weakening, and endocrine system issues, such as type 2 diabetes, sexual impotence, and decreased longevity.
But, when you exercise, you transition yourself back to letting your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) run the show. This is the state that your body should be in most of the time. On top of that, your exercise decreases your risk of heart disease, which is the number one killer of both men and women in America. Sure, you see accidents and crisis situations all the time as a first responder, but did you know that actually the most common killer is peoples’ hearts? When you exercise, your body pumps more blood through your heart and strengthens the heart muscle. It also decreases your blood pressure by empowering your heart to dilate its blood vessels more effectively, making your heart less likely to become congested and your arteries clogged.
Exercise builds your physical strength, restores your body to the right balance of nervous systems, and helps you live in physical and emotional wellness.
3. Emotional Wellness
Exercise helps your body get rid of excess stress hormones that can play tricks on your mind, so working out helps you become emotionally well.
In first responder careers, many first responders deal with chronic stress, meaning that their bodies are saturated with the stress hormone cortisol, and it begins to wreak havoc on their body’s functions and on their mental state. One of the most important things individuals can do to overcome the emotionally taxing side of being a first responder is to physically work the cortisol out of their bodies through exercise, stretching, and breathing. Even twenty minutes of intense cardio can release dopamine and work out some of the cortisol, helping the individual move toward emotional wellness.
Self-Care in Overcoming Addictions
When firefighters reach the end of their fire careers, many will begin to experience flashbacks that drive them to substances to numb their pain. Rather than taking care of themselves and talking about their pain, they stuff it, and neglect self-care. This often leads to addictions. Individuals struggling with addiction are “masters of self-neglect”. In order to recover, they must learn “consistent and effective self-care”. Research shows that exercise, sleep, healthy eating, and mindful breathing increase self-control. Learning to successfully live uncomfortable feelings and making healthy choices that support one’s physical and emotional wellbeing can help people overcome addictions and deal with their pain.
The Duty to Care for Yourself
The IAFC Wellness/Fitness Summary states, “Tomorrow’s fire service requires keeping our firefighters fit today.”
As a firefighter, you must recognize that the duty to serve and rescue civilians cannot be fulfilled if there is not, at the same time, a duty to care for yourself. People need you, but you need to be well physically, emotionally, and physiologically to be able to help others to the best of your ability. Exercise is one of the most basic and effective ways you can become well, so you can be there for your family and your colleagues.
There are so many organizations out there that support firefighter physical wellness, including 4th Shift Fitness (4thshiftfitness.com). According to their website, “4th Shift Fitness provides on-site classroom, hands-on seminars, workshops and training sessions to fire departments in order to improve fitness, increase durability and reduce injuries and their associated costs.” Their trainings include topics like:
Shoulder injury cause and prevention
Back injury cause and prevention
Fitness programming for firefighters
Effective strength and conditioning methods for firefighters
Goal setting and execution
The question to ask yourself is- what is my first step toward taking better care of myself? For many, it will simply be adding 20 minutes of exercise to their daily schedule. This can be a quick jog, yoga, a fitness class, lifting weights with a buddy, or going on a hike. For others, it can be finding support to heal an injury. For others, it could be adopting a new schedule at home to get your family active with you. For others, it might be enlisting support from trainers like Chris Marella at 4th Shift Fitness, who understands the importance of helping firefighters get into a motivating rhythm of exercise.
What’s your next step? I bet you it will change your career and your life more than you think.
Dienstbier, R. A. (1989). Arousal and physiological toughness: Implications for mental and physical health. Psychological Review, 96, 84-100.
Frankenhaeuser, M., Lundberg, U., & Forsman, L. (1980). Dissociation between sympathetic-adrenal and pituitary-adrenal responses to an achievement situation characterized by high controllability: Comparison between Type A and Type B males and females. Biological Psychology, 10, 79-91.
Moss, Simon. “Physiological Toughness.” SICOTests.com. June 18, 2016.