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It’s no secret that 45% of line-of-duty deaths are caused by a cardiovascular event. Which means if the smoke, flames, stress, or a freak accident doesn’t get you – your heart might.
Fire suppression or even training activities create the perfect storm for a heart attack in a high-risk individual. The alarm tone immediately sets you into “fight or flight mode,” raising blood pressure and heart rate. Carrying equipment combined with the scorching temperature of the fire raises body temperature, alters electrolytes and depletes water stores; often leading to dehydration regardless of hydration efforts. Dehydration thickens the blood, making it sludge-like with stickier platelets. All of these factors create both a pro-clotting and pro-arrhythmogenic state. Ultimately, the overall stress on the heart of a high-risk firefighter may cause a heart attack or fatal arrhythmia.
Of course, fire suppression is not a guaranteed heart attack. It is important to know what your risk factors are and how to improve them. Being 45 years or older and having a family history are two big factors, but there is nothing you can do about that. Fortunately, risk factors like high cholesterol, high blood pressure, fitness level, and excess body fat can improve with a few targeted lifestyle changes.
If your cholesterol is out of whack, a simple approach would include less animal fat and more fiber. Fatty meat/dairy like bacon, sausage, and butter can increase your “bad” LDL cholesterol and reduce your “good” HDL cholesterol. High fiber foods like fruit, vegetables, oatmeal, and beans help sweep the excess cholesterol out. Omega-3 fatty acids in salmon, herring, tuna, chia seeds, and flax seeds can also help reduce cholesterol. Reducing your alcohol intake, drinking more water, and regular exercise will also improve your cholesterol.
High blood pressure can be genetic, but can often be improved through exercise, stress reduction, and proper diet. Exercise improves the heart’s response to stress by pumping more blood with less effort. The less effort it takes to pump blood, the less pressure on your arteries.
Stress can mimic a physical threat by releasing hormones that increases your heart rate and constricts your blood vessels. A firehouse is a stress inducing environment, and often starts with alarm tones. A simple way to counteract the rise in blood pressure is to take a slow, deep breath. Count to four on the inhale and exhale. Taking a moment to breathe can also help when you feel yourself getting worked up over family, financial or other stress inducing events. Regular meditation, yoga, or even petting your dog can help reduce stress.
What you eat can impact your blood pressure as well. High potassium foods help reduce blood pressure. In general, fruits and vegetables are high in potassium. Aim for 5, ½ cup servings of fruit and vegetables per day. Kiwis, bananas, oranges, and potatoes with skin are all high in potassium.
Being fit not only increases your ability to complete job tasks, but also pushes your heart and lungs to adapt to stress. Exercising teaches your body to control breathing rate, meaning fit firefighters can take in less air during fire suppression activities. A firefighter fitness program encompasses all aspects of physical fitness, including strength, cardio, and flexibility. Such programs should also consider job functions like climbing stairs, crawling, climbing, pulling, and grip strength.
If it has been a while since you have done a regimented program, start with 20 minutes, 3 times per week. Strive to work out or walk every shift. If a call interrupts your workout, try to complete it later in the day or walk on the treadmill for a bit in the afternoon. Something is always better than nothing.
With hundreds of quick fix programs and supplements out there, figuring out how to lose weight can get confusing. At the end of the day, a calorie deficit is essential to lose body fat. This means burning more energy than what you take in.
Creating a calorie deficit is easier said than done! Logging your food for a day or two on a meal tracker like MyFitnessPal is a good start. Portion sizes and pre-packaged food can sneak in excess calories. Tracking your food keep you accountable and creates awareness on what you are eating. Note that 0.5lb to 1lb a week is a good pace for weight loss. More than 1 lb per week often reduces flexibility in food choices and overall diet consistency.
Certain medical conditions, medications and even work schedules can make maintaining a calorie deficit even more challenging. If you are having trouble losing weight or sticking to a plan, consider working with a dietitian that understands shift work.
Heart disease is a combination of factors and can be overwhelming. It is okay to make one small change at a time! You would be surprised what cutting out a soda, eating an extra vegetable, or fitting in a 20 minute workout can do over time. With a few targeted lifestyle changes, you can improve your heart health and your firefighting abilities.
Megan is a Registered Dietitian and coach who specializes in firefighter nutrition. Megan’s mission is to help firefighters perform better, recover faster, and enjoy long, healthy retirements. Megan is the owner of RescueRD LLC, which provides nutrition seminars and coaching for tactical athletes across the country. Check out @Rescue.RD on Facebook and Instagram.