EMS: Are You Fit For Duty?

I ran across an article that stated that three-quarters of active emergency responders nationwide are overweight or obese. Cardiovascular disease is the third leading cause of death.1 The research referenced was 10 years ago. This is not a new problem but instead it is becoming an epidemic for EMS personnel.


Many risks are associated with being overweight. Carrying excess weight is associated with higher rates of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke and some cancers.

Obesity plays a huge role in injury. Joint compression and altered movement patterns due to increased body mass cause the knees, hip and back to be more prone to injury.

EMS Lifestyle Lends Itself to Obesity

Shift work, excessive work hours, poor nutrition, limited exercise and sleep deprivation lead to decreased health. Emergency personnel work all hours of the day and night, often overtime. This regularly leads to sleep disruption and deprivation. Short sleep duration is related to an increase in obesity, and inadequate sleep can more than double the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.2 In addition there has been shown a linear correlation with increased body weight and waist circumference.3

Nutrition and exercise, however, are areas in which an individual can make a change. Poor nutrition is often a challenge due to limited healthy food options while on duty, and regular exercise is hard to come by with little time for sleep. But small changes in these areas could have a major effect on your health.

In the simplest of terms, body weight is a result of the balance between the energy you take in and the energy you burn. If you take in the same amount of energy you burn, your weight stays the same. If you take in fewer calories than you burn, you lose weight. And if you take in more calories than you burn, you gain weight.

Such simple things as packing one healthy meal a day, stocking the station with low-calorie snacks and learning to identify the most nutritious options from fast food restaurants can all add up to significant long-term results. To be successful be aware of what and how much you are eating. Avoid supersizing and buffets.

Adding in short periods of physical activity can also lead to substantial cardiovascular health improvement. Even better news: You don’t have carve out huge chunks of your day for exercise. Breaking it down into a few 10-minute sessions has been shown to have the same cardiovascular benefits as a longer workout. So, try exercising in between calls, before work in the morning or after dinner on your days off. Whenever you have a few minutes to spare, you can do a little to improve your heart heath. You don’t need a gym, use your body weight and gear at the station. Get a co-worker to join you. You will be more successful if you have a buddy system.

The benefits of healthy responders aren’t just personal. A physically fit caregiver is able to carry patients and equipment more easily, traverse such obstacles as stairs and hillsides more quickly and is less likely to suffer a personal health event that interferes with patient care. Taking a little time each day to focus on your own health could help you in the long run to provide your patients with the highest possible level of care.

It’s time to stop this pattern of obesity in EMS departments. Get started today.​

  1. Kales SN, Tsismenakis AJ, Zhang C, et al. Blood pressure in firefighters, police officers, and other emergency responders. Am J Hypertens. 2009;22(1):11–20.
  2. Elliot DL, Kuehl KS. Effects of sleep deprivation on fire fighters and EMS responders: Final report. International Association of Fire Chiefs. 2007.
  3. Tsismenakis AJ, Christophi CA, Burress JW, et al. The obesity epidemic and future emergency responders. Obesity. 2009;17(8):1648–1650.
If you want to determine how you can improve your fitness and implement a program at your department contact kleatherman@fitnessforumonline.com.

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