Safety & Health

Frightening Health Trends and How You Can Avoid Them

Issue 12 and Volume 5.

I (Martha) had foot surgery recently, but it was very minor, just removing a few loose screws from a previous surgery. As I lay there on my prep cot, calm as could be, I watched as a tall, older doctor in surgical scrubs hurried into the cubical next to mine. I’m not one to eavesdrop, but I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation. After the doctor got past the usual greeting, he jumped into the nuts and bolts of the surgical procedure he would be performing on the patient. “We’re going to have to remove part of your larynx,” he said. “It’s going to make it difficult to swallow and talk. We’re going to take as little as we have to, but we have to make sure we get clear margins around the tumor.”

My heart sank. Here I am having a couple of loose screws removed and the guy next to me is in the early stages of throat cancer.

His wife and son were there with him. They attempted to keep the mood light with quips and jokes, but the weight of the situation was palpable, even through the thin wall between us. “If we get clear margins,” continued the doctor, “that will help with the radiation treatment…” And so on.

My mind raced, trying to put myself in his place. I know he had to answer all the same pre-op questions that I did: Do you smoke? Do you drink? Do you exercise? But what were his answers? Yes, yes, no? Did he then start to reflect on the errors of his ways, exploring what could’ve put him in the position he’s in now, fighting for his life, hoping not to leave his wife and kids behind to fend for themselves?

I couldn’t help but wonder if this is the same mental self-evaluation many go through when they’re diagnosed with cancer, heart disease, type II diabetes, stroke, osteoporosis, arthritis, high cholesterol, depression or any other disease that could be diet- or lifestyle-related. The age-old question “What could I have done differently?” must come to mind.

There are few things in this world more frustrating than regret, especially when your life hangs in the balance. The best way to avoid regret when it comes to your health is to make good choices, which can be easier said than done, because sometimes, the right choices aren’t very obvious. But when scores of people make the same mistakes and get the same dismal results, wouldn’t a thinking person seize the opportunity to learn from others’ poor judgment?

Not only should we learn from others’ mistakes when it comes to lifestyle choices, but we should also take notice of numerous studies that point to the positive effects of a sound fitness regimen and nutrition plan for maintaining health. People of all ages and physical capability levels can benefit from some form of physical activity. “Use it or lose it” isn’t just a catchy cliché.

Those who embrace the notion that “I have to die from something” as they take another drag from their cigarette will likely be singing a different tune when their surgeon starts explaining that removing part of their voice box is going to make it difficult to swallow and talk.

Frightening Trends
If the ideas of life-threatening illness and surgery aren’t enough to motivate you to make some lifestyle changes, consider this: The trends in the United States toward sedentary lifestyle and poor diet translate into increased medical costs associated with all the previously mentioned diseases. It’s expensive trying to heal everyone who fails to take care of their own bodies. With all the controversy over healthcare in this country, it’s astounding that many still fail to hold up the mirror and realize that many of the inflated costs could be avoided if they would simply get off of their posterior and actually move!

The saddest trend of all, however, is the increase in childhood obesity. According to the Centers for Disease Control, childhood obesity has nearly tripled in this country since the early 1960s. The emotional and economic fallout of this trend should be a wake-up call for all of us. Medical professionals now speculate that our youngest generation will be the first ever to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.

You Are a Role Model
The expectation is that we will be positive role models for our children, so carrying excessive weight, smoking and providing a steady stream of processed food may not be the best decisions to make. Look around. How often do you see overweight parents with trim, athletic-looking kids? How often do the children of smokers take up smoking? According to one study from the University of Washington, children of smokers are not only more likely to smoke cigarettes; they are also more likely to engage in drug use.

You don’t have kids, you say? Well, we’ve all chosen a profession that regularly places us in the public eye and as a result, we are role models for the entire community. Kids of all ages look up to us and look to us for good examples of how to behave and perform within our community. Honestly, if you’re still looking for reasons not to get fit, you need to find a new career. Repeat after me: “Do you want fries with that?”

How to Get Started
If you’re lost on how to get started or you’re reluctant because you know it’s going to be uncomfortable, the best advice we can give is to start slowly. Use the following steps as a simple guide.

  • Step 1: Talk with your doctor. Make sure there aren’t any medical issues that would prohibit you from starting a workout program.
  • Step 2: Determine a baseline for what you can do. If you can make an appointment with a personal trainer, that would be helpful. If you can’t, start off with an easy aerobic effort and very light weights in the gym. You could also try calisthenics. By using your own body weight and gravity, you can have greater control of your effort. Tip: Keep a record of your efforts so you can monitor your improvement.
  • Step 3: Start early on core strength. If you’re weak and out of condition, your core stabilizing muscles are going to need attention. Remember: Don’t jump into heavy lifting until you’ve worked on core development. This will help prevent injury by strengthening the stabilizing muscle groups of your pelvis, low back and abdomen.
  • Step 4: Chart your course. You’ve got to have a plan. Decide what your workout will include and when you’re going to do it. Partner up if you can; getting a commitment from a friend is a great way to keep the momentum going. Plus, it’s harder to skip a workout if you’ve got a buddy waiting for you at the gym or track.
  • Step 5: Don’t just exercise; start eating well, too. Cut way back on simple sugars, saturated fats and processed foods. Shop on the outer ring of the market. That’s where you’re more likely to find fresh foods, but be selective here, too. If you must have steak, don’t sit down to a serving that could feed a family of four. Focus on whole grains and fresh vegetables over fatty meats. Drink more water and cut way back on sodas and other sugary drinks, even those touted as “good for you.” These drinks are well marketed, but read the labels. If multiple ingredients are listed that you can’t even pronounce, or it includes some facsimile of sugar derived from excessive processing (seriously, just eat sugar, but in very small quantities), put it back.

Things to Remember
Sometimes, taking care of yourself can feel like a lot of work. But when you first begin a health/fitness regimen, there’s a lot at stake, so now is not the time to be lazy. You have to stay on your toes and keep a sharp eye out for the gazillion-dollar, marketing powerhouses that constantly try to convince you that everything from foot-long hotdogs to deep-fried grilled cheese sandwiches are the right things to consume.

Changing your habits isn’t easy; it’s definitely going to take some commitment on your part. But you aren’t the first person who’s fallen out of shape, so to keep your commitment, look for role models—people who’ve lost weight and kept it off. Public figures or friends are great people to look to for weight-loss inspiration.  

Your house, the station and public environments can challenge even the most well- intentioned person. Clean out the pantry and refrigerator of all the garbage foods, and make it clear to family and friends that you’ve chosen a longer, healthier life. Few things in this world are as worthy of your attention as your own health and wellbeing. It affects everything you do and everyone you love.  

A Final Farewell
Jeff and I have thoroughly enjoyed writing the Survival of the Fittest column for FireRescue, and we hope we’ve provided useful and applicable information and resources. After 4½ years of contributing material, however, we’ve decided to make room for some new perspectives. We sincerely hope that we have somehow reached individuals in need of inspiration, motivation, start-up information or advice on how to take your training to the next level. We will continue to make ourselves available via email to answer questions, so please feel free to write.

It is our deepest hope that we have demonstrated the need to keep fitness in the forefront of the fire service. Without it, our profession is merely a shadow of what it can be.

Don’t Worry! Survival of the Fittest Isn’t Going Anywhere
Although Jeff and Martha Ellis are moving on, FireRescue will continue to provide all the fitness-related information you need to stay healthy. Beginning in 2011, Assistant Chief Monte Egherman from the Buckeye (Ariz.) Fire Department will lend his knowledge and expertise to the Survival of the Fittest column. Egherman is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and coach, a certified sports performance coach and a certified fire officer. We welcome Chief Egherman to the FireRescue family and look forward to learning from his insight.