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Fight the Effects of Aging

Issue 5 and Volume 3.

Aging isn’t for sissies. The idea that things will eventually start to sag and weaken is a tough pill to swallow. Most of us start this job young, motivated and fit, but we all know that time can and will take its toll on our bodies and physical ability.

Unfortunately, universal fitness within the ranks is not always the case. It’s demonstrated time and again as firefighters die in the line of duty due to cardiac issues and continually rack up workers’ compensation claims due to “overexertion” injuries. These deaths and injuries don’t always involve the elders of our departments, but we all become more susceptible to them as we age, especially if we don’t take care of ourselves. So what’s expected of the more mature constituents of the fire department as they progress into the later years of their careers?

The “Holy Crap” Moment

We think it’s fair that all new employees meet a minimum standard when it comes to fitness. So is it unreasonable to require incumbent firefighters to maintain their physical ability so they can sustain an acceptable work effort on the fire or emergency scene? Not really. Otherwise, what are we getting paid for? Note: That’s not to say the senior members of the department must perform at the same level as the youngsters. Those youngsters should be operating at a level well above the minimum standard.

There seems to be an outdated philosophy in the fire service that you must prove you’re fit enough to do this job only once—when you’re first hired—that fosters a strange attitude of entitlement rarely seen in the private sector.

After being in the service for a number of years, many people oppose mandatory physical fitness programs. There’s a variety of reasons why: fear of losing jobs, fear of having to work to maintain adequate fitness levels or fear in general.

We aren’t going to debate whether or not your department should have a physical ability test or program. (Not here, at least.) Even if you don’t have a measurable fitness standard in place, every department has a standard or expectation of performance. This means that in the event of an emergency, all members will be expected to step off the rig and work effectively—and at times very hard. Regardless of your current role in your department, you must be ready for that “Holy crap!” moment when you may be called out of your regular duties to save a life.

Change Your Hill

Age seems to be a common excuse for inability or lack of effort, but you’re not old just because you’ve reached a certain age. You become old when you start telling yourself you’re old.

Granted, as we age, physical ability does deteriorate. Once we’ve reached our physiological prime, everything else is downhill. The question is, how steep is the hill? More importantly, can you influence the steepness of your hill? Are there things we can change about our daily behavior that can actually keep us young? The answer is yes!

The first place to start is your head. Most people are obsessed with aging. We consider so many activities “out of reach” simply because we’ve hit a certain age that we perceive as the “crest of the hill.” We remember our parents at that age, and they were old. We have a quiver full of reasons why we shouldn’t step out of our comfort zone, and aging becomes the easiest and most justifiable excuse as time passes.

The truth: Most people don’t know what they can do because they haven’t dared to try! So don’t waste time convincing yourself that you’re old and then use that as an excuse for doing little to improve or maintain yourself. Dwelling on every ache and pain instead of utilizing your current level of ability is defeating. Remember: In 10 years you’re going to wish you had what you have now.

When you neglect your body, you don’t just surrender your current ability, you also forfeit your future potential. Put another way, if you’ve allowed your fitness level to plummet for years, your potential for achieving a higher fitness level in the future decreases significantly, compared with what you could’ve achieved if you hadn’t neglected your physical fitness in the first place.

So are you doomed if you’ve never embraced the idea of physical maintenance or improvement? Quite the contrary. We’ve seen 75-year-old emphysema patients who smoked all their lives turn things around and begin to feel better when they incorporated exercise into their rehabilitation. But remember, had that 75-year-old chosen a different path 20, 30, 40 or even 50 years earlier, they could realize an even greater potential for health, fitness and quality of life today.

Use What You’ve Got

So what must you do now to get started on the road to improved fitness? It’s simple: Make time to appreciate what you have by using your body on a regular basis. Anything from swimming to cycling to rowing, elliptical training or running can improve aerobic fitness. Engaging in some kind of aerobic activity­—a minimum of 20 minutes, three to four times a week—will make a difference. Find what works for you.

To increase muscle mass, get in the weight room. Whole body lifts like the dead lift, power clean or thruster can get you in and out of the gym in a reasonable amount of time while developing muscle strength. Note: If it’s been a while, take it slow! (For more on dead lifts, see “Back It Up,” p. 186 in the August 2007 issue. For more on power cleans and thrusters, see “More Power to Ya,” p. 110 in the July 2007 issue.)

Conclusion

People can fight fire well into their later years. The key is to get fit and stay fit. Maintain your body weight, aerobic fitness and strength conditioning and you can achieve a productive career that spans 30+ years. Remember: By showing up to work, you’re attesting to being able to do the job. Consider this: You have more control over your aging process than you may be giving yourself credit for. Focus on what you have, not what you’ve lost. Recognize and address self-destructive behavior, like smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise. By changing the way you think and act, you’ll change the way you age.