Obesity, The Major Risk Factor for Volunteer Firefighters

CarolinaFireJournal - By Karen Leatherman
By Karen Leatherman
10/26/2015 -

In an article written in “Fire Engineering” by Thomas A. Merrill he stated, “Being a volunteer firefighter affords no excuse for not being physically up to the task.


Look at the statistics and get a reality check; the number of firefighters passing away from sudden cardiac events is alarming. Firefighters face a multitude of dangers. Every day, their health and safety is threatened by toxic smoke, high heat, and chaotic work environments. But, heart attacks continue to be one of the leading causes of firefighter line of duty deaths.”

As we perform annual physicals throughout the state, the biggest risk factor for heart disease is obesity and poor physical fitness. Although we see this in career firefighters, the majority are volunteers.

Weight that is higher than what is considered as a healthy weight for a given height is described as overweight or obese. Body Mass Index, or BMI, is used as a screening tool for overweight or obesity. To determine your BMI refer to the chart with this article.

  • If your BMI is less than 18.5, it falls within the underweight range.
  • If your BMI is 18.5 to 24.9, it falls within the normal or healthy weight range.
  • If your BMI is 25.0 to 29.9, it falls within the overweight range.
  • If your BMI is 30.0 or higher, it falls within the obese range.

This is only a screening tool and is not a measure of body fatness. For example a shorter very muscular person may have a high BMI but a normal percentage body fat. A good complement to BNI is measuring waist circumference. The two together are more accurate for determining risk. If most of your fat is around your waist rather than at your hips, you’re at a higher risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. This risk goes up with a waist size that is greater than 35 inches for women or greater than 40 inches for men.

For people who are considered obese (BMI greater than or equal to 30) or those who are overweight (BMI of 25 to 29.9) and have two or more risk factors, your risk is even greater if your waist circumference is also high. Even a small weight loss (between five and 10 percent of your current weight) will help lower your risk of developing diseases associated with obesity. If you fall in this category here are a few guidelines to help you get started.

  1. Set a specific goal such as I am going to reduce my waist circumference to less than 40 inches. You can count on about five pounds per one inch to help set your weight loss goal. For example, a man weighing 250 pounds and has a waist of 50 inches can set his goal at 11 inches or 55 pounds.
  2. Hold yourself accountable. Record everything you eat. This is made simple by all the free apps available. One example is MyFitnessPal. This will track food and exercise.
  3. Put exercise on your daily schedule. If you don’t schedule it then it won’t happen. You make time for things important to you and what is more important than your health?
  4. Find a workout partner to help keep you motivated and on task. Exercise is more fun when shared with someone.

Volunteers account for the majority of firefighters in this country. They also are among the least fit compared with career firefighters. We need to help these individuals realize the importance of being more fit which includes having waist circumferences less than 40 inches for men and less than 35 inches for women. How do you measure up? Get moving and stay moving.

Karen Leatherman is president/owner of Fitness Forum Occupational Testing Services. She started the first hospital-based fitness center in South Carolina where she started cardiac and pulmonary rehab programs. She has over 30 years performing exercise stress testing and has been testing firefighters for over 20 years. In addition, she was on the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), Health and Fitness Certification Committee where she travelled with a team from the U.S. to India and Hong Kong to teach and administer ACSM exams.
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