Crucial lifestyle changes can prevent heart attack & improve health
Firefighting has come a long way in the past few decades. Advances in technology, apparatus, building construction and firefighter fitness have contributed to a more effective and efficient fire service. The days of charcoal breathing canisters and Browder Life Nets have given way to state-of-the-art breathing apparatus and thermal imaging cameras. Yet despite these advances, there remains one factor we haven’t mastered that continues to fatally plague our personnel: heart attacks.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 87 firefighters died while on duty in 2010. Of those, 50 of the 87 firefighter deaths were related to heart attacks. Although there are certain variables associated with heart attacks that we can’t change (i.e., age, gender or family history), we can maximize those variables that are controllable.
The First Step: Get a Physical
Comprehensive medical physicals should be the first step to identifying your health status and needs, because you need to know how healthy or, more importantly, how unhealthy you are. Early detection of maladies can mean the difference between treatment and death.
Medical physicals should include blood work and a cardiac stress test, but if your department does not mandate or even recommend yearly medical physicals, you owe it to yourself, your crew and the customers you serve to get a comprehensive medical physical on your own. This is especially true for volunteer departments.
Now for a reality check: Firefighters make the worst patients. Our health center continues to deal with firefighters who avoid their yearly physicals. We respond to hundreds of medical calls each day and see the effects of those who lack medical care, yet some of us still don’t want to visit a doctor. Some people might think that if they aren’t having any symptoms, then there’s no reason for a physical. Others may be afraid of what the doctor will find.
On the other hand, I’ve witnessed several firefighters who’ve been given a second chance at life because of the early detection and treatment of cardiac issues. Some of these firefighters were asymptomatic while others had symptoms that they simply disregarded. In either case, issues were detected early on due to the fact that these people got a physical.
Taste vs. Everything Else
I think that at this point, it would insult the intelligence of the reader to actually identify foods that are bad for your health—we all know which foods may not be the healthiest. The problem isn’t identifying the foods, but rather choosing not to eat them or choosing a healthier option. The next time you’re cooking, ask the crew if they’d rather eat fried chicken or steamed chicken breast, and see what happens. The point is that taste often overrides everything else, especially when you’ve been running calls all day. So we can flood the firehouse with healthy recipes of baked tofu with lemon-infused, organic greens and such, but the reality is that if it doesn’t taste good, firefighters won’t eat it.
There are two things about firehouse cooking that are taught to you early in your career: Make it taste good and make a lot of it. So what we need are healthier options for firehouse favorites, and I think that we’re starting to see a change in the right direction. I’ve noticed that our station oven is getting used a bit more, and the deep fryer is getting used a bit less. Simple educational tools in the firehouse explained in “firefighter-ese” seem to get noticed more than best-selling novels about healthy eating.
Facts About Fat
Fat makes food taste good, but we also need a certain amount of fat in our diet. The problem is that eating the wrong fats substantially contributes to higher cholesterol levels and heart disease.
According to the American Heart Association, saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature and have a chemical make-up in which carbon atoms are saturated with hydrogen atoms. As a result, eating foods high in saturated fats raises the amount of cholesterol in your blood and raises your risk of heart disease and stroke. Fatty meats and dairy products contain high levels of saturated fats. So replacing fatty cuts of meat with leaner cuts will reduce the amount of saturated fat in your diet.
Monounsaturated fats are those that help reduce bad cholesterol levels in your blood and lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Examples of foods high in monounsaturated fats include vegetable oils, such as olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil and sesame oil. Other sources include avocados, peanut butter, and many nuts and seeds.
Similarly, polyunsaturated fats can help reduce the cholesterol levels in your blood and lower your risk of heart disease and include essential fats that your body needs but can’t produce itself, such as omega-6 and omega-3. Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring and trout are good sources of polyunsaturated fats.
Get Some Exercise
Being physically fit is not an option for firefighters. Chances are that, because you’re reading a fitness column, you know this already and are participating in a fitness regimen. But what you may not know is that you could still be at risk for a heart condition. As mentioned earlier, I’ve witnessed several firefighters who were “saved” by their yearly physicals. What I did not mention is that many of those firefighters exercised regularly and were not overweight. Just looking physically fit does not ensure health. So if you’ve neglected a comprehensive physical because you exercise regularly and eat well, this is your wake-up call.
Exercise certainly prepares us for the job of firefighting, but it also protects us from many of the “side effects” of the job by:
- Improving blood circulation
- Keeping weight under control
- Improving blood cholesterol levels
- Preventing and managing hypertension
- Boosting energy levels
- Helping manage stress
- Releasing tension
- Promoting enthusiasm and optimism
- Countering anxiety and depression
- Improving the ability to sleep
- Reducing coronary heart disease in women by 30–40 percent
- Reducing the risk of stroke by 20 percent in moderately active people and by 27 percent in highly active people
Change Your Recipe
Shift work, chronic stress, interrupted and/or lack of sleep, hypertension and even dehydration have all been studied and shown to be factors in heart issues. Couple these factors with a family history of cardiac issues or other maladies like high cholesterol, and you have a recipe for a cardiac event. So how can you be sure that you’re not at risk? Get a yearly physical, get some regular exercise and make good choices in the foods you eat. It’s a lifestyle change, for sure, but one that could save your life.
By Michael Ong
Michael Ong is a battalion chief with the Phoenix Fire Department. He also served as the division chief of the Phoenix Fire Department Health Center and as the department’s wellness coordinator. He has been involved in the health and fitness industry for more than 20 years.