Healthy life style

CarolinaFireJournal - JOE ELLIS
10/18/2009 -

Saving lives. Isn’t that the heart of what firefighting and emergency medical services are all about? What about your own life?

I’ve been to several fire/ EMS tradeshows lately to introduce our new firefighter’s treadmill and it’s very concerning how overweight, and even obese, many public safety workers are. Many firefighters don’t appear physically capable of performing their job in intensely demanding situations when people’s lives are on the line.

The American Medical Association recently came out with a report that said one-third of all Americans are obese and another one-third is overweight. This leaves only one-third of the American population that has a healthy weight for their height and body type.


Calculating your target rate is simple. Here is the formula: 220 minus your age times 75 percent equals your target heart rate. For example if you are 40 years old, it would be 220 - 40 = 180 x 75% = 135 beats per minute, target heart rate.

Those are staggering numbers. Having seen hundreds of firefighters in the last few months, I would say those statistics are pretty close, if not accurate, for this group also. A lot of the firefighters we try to talk to about the importance of a healthy diet and adequate exercise frequently joke around about it like it’s no big deal. The ironic thing is that when we talk about the number one killer of firefighters, it seems to be common knowledge that it is a fatal cardiac event. Most also seem to know that the number one injury involves a lower back problem.

These two major issues stem from the same thing - an unhealthy lifestyle. Lack of exercise and the tasty, high fat, high calorie diets lead to a variety of heart disease. Also, the excessive belly fat pulls so much on the low back that even minor physical exertion can cause a debilitating injury.

I don’t understand why there is not a national set of physical condition standards for public safety employees. I know that some states do have standards, but very few make passing those standards a requirement for keeping your job. The leadership in public safety in most states are obviously ignoring this major problem.

Many fire departments we talk with about exercise equipment and a fitness program say it’s something they would like to have but they cannot get the funding. Making the physical condition of firefighters a low priority is extremely irresponsible and inexcusable. If you want to put a financial pencil to it, the savings in insurance premiums and worker’s comp claims alone would many times over, pay for the cost of the fitness equipment and programs.

Although exercise products and programs frequently fall off the wish list, things like recliners, big screen TVs, video games, bar-b-q grills and the like seem to get approved on a regular basis. This just reinforces the unhealthy lifestyle.

Now that we’ve got the facts straight, let’s talk about how we can substantially change this situation for the better. This is about a life style change. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a comfortable environment in the fire house, or that you have to eat carrot sticks for every meal, but some moderate changes to your eating, drinking and exercise habits can have a tremendous impact on your quality of life and ability to perform your job.


If you have any questions or concerns about your ability to exercise safely, consult with your doctor before starting your exercise program. Exercise is half of the equation for a healthy lifestyle, but let’s go at it with a plan to get the most out of it. Don’t waste your time not optimizing your efforts.

Target heart rate cardio training: Most cardio training exercise machines today (including the firefighters treadmill that we make) comes with the ability for the machine to tell you what your heart rate is in beats per minute. It’s unfortunate that most people don’t use this feature. There are two ways a machine can monitor your heart rate; a grip monitor that you grab and hold onto for several seconds to get a reading or a wireless chest strap that you wear under your shirt against your skin. The chest strap is far and away the most accurate and constantly monitors the rate versus the grip unit that just gives you a snapshot of your heart rate each time you grab it.

Regardless, you need to know what your heart rate is to achieve your optimum calorie burn and cardiopulmonary fitness. Too low of a rate won’t get much done from either standpoint and too high of a rate may strengthen your heart and lungs but not burn much fat. Most people think, “I’m breathing hard and sweating, I must be getting a great workout.” Maybe you are, but why guess at it. It’s like driving a car without a speedometer.

Here’s what you do. If you have access to a treadmill, elliptical, bike etc. call the manufacturer. Their number or Website will be somewhere on the machine. Give them the model number and ask if it is compatible with a chest strap heart rate monitor. If it is, ask them to sell you an extra one. It should cost you around $25. Now you will have a way to optimize each workout and not have to worry about finding the chest strap or it being clean when you are ready to workout.

Calculating your target rate is simple. Here is the formula: 220 minus your age times 75 percent equals your target heart rate. For example if you are 40 years old, it would be 220 - 40 = 180 x 75% = 135 beats per minute, target heart rate. Some people say use a lower percentage for this kind of training and a higher percentage for that kind of training but 75 percent is a good happy medium that’s going to achieve your goals of weight loss and control, as well as good cardiovascular health.

If your fire house doesn’t have equipment and going to a health club doesn’t work for your schedule, here’s an alternative. Go to www. or to your local sporting goods store and you can get a basic unit for about $60. It comes with the chest strap and a wrist watch type display. They are super convenient and accurate. You can continued from page 63 use this to run outside, or, if the machine you use doesn’t have the heart rate monitoring feature.

The workout: Using your heart rate monitor, start out gradually and work up to your target rate within five minutes of starting your workout. Once you achieve you target rate, monitor it frequently to stay within five beats per minute on either side of your target. If you fall below your target you’ll need to increase the difficulty a little and if you go over you’ll need to back off a little. With a little practice, you’ll get very good at maintaining your target. Stay at your target rate based on your personal capabilities.

It would be an excellent idea to ask your doctor how long to work out when you are getting started. If you are de-conditioned you may only be able to work out for 15 minutes or so for the first several workouts and gradually increase the time as you progress. As a general rule you will want to work up to staying at your target rate for between 25 to 35 minutes. You should gradually decrease your heart rate over the last five minutes of your workout until you get back to what your resting heart rate was before you started working out.

Strength training: Strength training has many benefits and should augment your cardio training. If you are substantially overweight it’s not going to be as important the first several weeks, until you start getting some weight off. As a general rule, one to two days a week should be used for strength training and at least two to three days a week should be used for cardio training. If you not experienced working out with weights, you should seek the instruction of an experienced certified trainer before you begin. Attempting to use more weight than you can safely handle and not performing the exercise properly can very easily result in an injury. If you don’t have access to any weight equipment, good old fashion push ups, chin ups and sit ups are a good standby.


Without including this in the plan the exercise won’t do much good.

There is no shortage of fad diets that promise and sometimes deliver quick results but are unhealthy and unsustainable. There is only one universal healthy diet that works long term. It’s pretty simple: Low fat, low sodium, low refined sugar, adequate amounts of protein, raw fruits and vegetables. The other key is quantity. Control your portions to match you needs. Another key factor is reading the labels on everything before you buy and consume it. This isn’t rocket science.

Here are some easy things to do.

Don’t eat any dairy products. After we reach adulthood, no human requires dairy in their diet. A calcium pill supplement will take care of bone density needs. If this is a tough one for you and you frequently eat cereal for breakfast go with skim milk. Butter, cheese, whole milk, two percent milk, one percent milk, ice cream, mayonnaise, salad dressings, crème cheese, sour crème and other dairy products and bi-products are loaded with calories and saturated fat. Eliminating this group alone will make a huge difference in your body fat and waste line.

Liquids should consist of mostly water, moderate amounts of fresh juice, coffee and tea. You can’t put anything in the tea or coffee, especially sweetener. Sodas are in the same category as dairy. Having a sugary and or carbonated drink with a meal slows your metabolism to a snail’s pace. If you’ve got a soda or snack vending machine in the fire house tell the company that owns it to come get it. Your primary source for liquids should be water.

Protein: Proteins themselves are never a problem. It’s how we prepare them and the things we put on them that are the problems. Choose from the following: Baked or grilled chicken, fish and beef. Beef should be much less frequent than the others but, if it’s lean and prepared properly, it’s okay occasionally. The problem here is the sauce that goes with it. Most meat sauces contain huge amounts of sodium and sugar per tablespoon. Check the label and use in moderation.

Canned low sodium tuna is another great source of protein. Read the label for the sodium content. Put the tuna over a salad with some light dressing like oil and vinegar or eat it plain. Using any sort of white dressing or making it into tuna salad with mayonnaise defeats the purpose and turns it into a fat laden meal. Powdered protein supplements are another great source and easy to consume. Any health food store has several brands in a variety of flavors that mixes great with water, skim milk or fruit juice. Keep some handy for a quick protein fix. Boiled egg whites are an also an excellent source of protein also but you have to toss the yolks. This will seem like a waste at first but the whites are the good stuff.

Carbohydrates: This is your main energy source and eaten in the proper quantities and without adding the tasty bad stuff to them is essential in your diet. Baked potatoes, pasta, brown rice, white rice, couscous, oatmeal and grits are all excellent sources. Find ways to add flavor without the bad stuff. You can make a pasta salad with light oil and vinegar or use the broth from your baked meats to go over rice. Prior to baking potatoes or red potatoes, you can lightly rub them with olive oil for great flavor. Oatmeal, couscous and grits pretty much have to be eaten plain. Most breakfast cereals have a lot of sugar or corn syrup of some kind so they are really not a good choice. Shredded wheat cereal is a great choice with some fresh fruit and skim milk.

Fresh fruits and vegetables: Cooking fruits or vegetables takes away a lot of the nutritional value but lightly steaming the vegetables is okay on occasion. This is pretty self explanatory but try to eat at least two servings of each per day. Also, mix it up. Fruits and vegetables all vary in their vitamins and minerals content. Variety is the all around healthiest choice. Canned fruits and vegetables are not bad on occasion but cannot equal fresh in nutritional value. However, check the label for excessive sodium or added sugar or corn syrup. Eating some fresh fruit prior to working out and drinking water during your workout is far better for energy than having a sugary sports drink. Don’t let all the fancy advertising fool you. Look at the sugar and calories on the labels.

Bread: Whole wheat or whole grain bread is not terrible but it should be eaten in small quantities. It’s not a bad idea to eliminate bread altogether. If you are trying to loose a substantial amount of weight, you definitely want to stay away from bread completely. You can get everything you need from the carbohydrate group discussed earlier.

Meal frequency: If you can make it work with your schedule, eat five or six small meals per day as opposed to eating two or three big meals. This is better for you even when you eat the right kinds of food. This will keep your metabolism energized so your body will burn more calories. Large infrequent meals slows your metabolism and stores more calories. If this is tough for you, grab a small nutritious snack mid morning and mid afternoon. Do whatever you can to not get super hungry before your next meal. Not only will this slow your metabolism but you will tend to overeat.


For many of you, implementing these dietary guidelines would likely be a catastrophic change. However, this could be life saving for you, or at the least life changing. You will look better and feel better. Like anything that’s worth doing, getting started is the hardest part and the first few weeks will be tough, but the rewards will be more than worth it. As you start making progress and looking and feeling better you are going to get more and more motivated to stick with it. If all of these changes at once are overwhelming, start out with some of the things and continue to add them as you progress. If you are mentally tough and serious about making a big change, throw out all the bad stuff. Don’t say, “well, when this mayonnaise runs out I’m not going to buy any more. “ You are fooling yourself with that attitude.

Here’s a better way to look at it. Follow this diet plan with a weekly reward in mind. One meal, one day a week go out and eat what ever you want to maintain your sanity and reward yourself. Pizza, burger or whatever you want for that one weekly reward meal. Make sure you go out to eat it. Don’t make it at home or at the fire house. There can be no leftovers. Enjoy it and then go back to your plan to achieve your goals. The reward meals will become less and less of a big deal, but they are a good way to keep your head on straight in the beginning.

Getting started and staying motivated

Don’t come up with a start date, just get started. If you say I’m going to start this plan, “when I get back from vacation next month,” or “right after the first of the year,” or whenever, you will not. Guys get into a pair of workout shorts with no shirt. Ladies get into a swim suit and get someone to take a few before photos. Keep them handy and take new photos every week or two weeks at the most. Take them out and compare to see your progress. If you stick with the plan you will be amazed. If this was easy, there would be more than 33 percent of the population in good shape. It all comes down to how bad you want it. If you are not happy with the way you look and feel right now, this will be the most rewarding thing you have ever done in your life, guaranteed.

Joe Ellis is founder and managing partner of Fitness Tools, LLC. Visit or e-mail [email protected] for more information.
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