How to maintain adequate LEO physical fitness

So that you can beat all the odds that are against you, maintaining adequate LEO physical fitness should be your own personal condition of employment

Good physical fitness is a condition of your employment.

Never mind that. After all, you’ve got rights. If your fitness is ever questioned, don’t fret. You only have to meet “minimally acceptable” performance standards, and none of those are calculated by actual fitness, physical or otherwise. Remember, you’re a government worker: if you can minimally perform your job class’ essential job functions, you’ve got no worries. That’s the law. You can be morbidly obese and on the cusp of a heart attack or a stroke and still hit the streets. Think I’m joking? Look up your agency’s essential job functions and then consider what is minimally accepted for each.

Even though policing is frequently a physical job, enforceable fitness expectations are as low as ever. The fitness expectations of those who rely on you, however, are much higher – people like your spouse, your kids, your beat partner and the majority of your community who are quietly rooting for you against the frequently very-fit crook population. They’re all hoping you’ll hold yourself to a higher fitness standard – one that will make their lives and yours better.

“Adequate LEO physical fitness” means maintaining good cardio health and muscular strength.
“Adequate LEO physical fitness” means maintaining good cardio health and muscular strength. (Photo/Dave Edmonds)

But that’s all up to you.

Unchecked, police work makes you unhealthy. High stress, terrible work hours, mostly sedentary conditions, and an often isolating and unsupportive work environment leaves cops prone to a poor diet and alcoholism were not on the job flyer. For your happiness and longevity, and so that you can beat all the odds against you, maintaining adequate LEO physical fitness should be your own personal condition of employment.

If you can achieve adequate LEO physical fitness, all aspects of your work and home life will run better. You’ll live longer, perform better and your time on Earth will be more enjoyable.

“Adequate LEO physical fitness” means maintaining good cardio health and muscular strength. It’s morally indefensible for cops not to possess these two baseline attributes. Good cardio will save your life (read on), and because most on-duty physical confrontations require explosive strength, besides good tactics, your frame ought to be comparatively strong.

Protect your cardiovascular health

Cardiovascular health is most important because it’s the bane of our occupation and LEO life.

Forget your job for a minute and think about your family. We are the most obese profession in the U.S. According to the “American Journal of Preventive Medicine,” 41% of LEOs are obese, and twice that number are classified as overweight. Our average heart attack age is 18 years below the national average: 49! Factoring in off-duty deaths, heart attacks must certainly be the number one cop killer.

The heart can also mask major problems until it’s too late. My 38-year-old LEO cycling buddy was one of the best cardio-athletes in the San Francisco Bay Area. He had the worst of all heart attacks, a “widow maker.” Though he was comfortably symptomless, he was living off less than 40% of his heart capacity. While he had a genetic predisposition, everyone reading this article should get a coronary artery calcium scan. It will reliably tell you how much plaque is lining your heart right now. Zero plaque is normal, but I bet most of you veterans will have some, and some of you will be surprised to find out that you have a lot. For California peace officers, all heart issues are legally accepted as job caused.

Develop your muscular strength

While most of your job doesn’t require muscular strength, when it does, the more explosive and overwhelming you can be, the better. If you are relying on untrained muscles, minimally you and your opponent start out on an even playing field.

Some of us are just naturally stronger. Since we’re all born with unique physiologies, the game of life starts out rigged. The number of muscle fibers you have for life was set at birth, and your lifelong number of fat cells was set not long thereafter, as are your hormone levels, metabolic rate, cardiovascular limits and overall resilience. Then there’s the aging process: once you hit 30, if you do nothing about it, you’ll lose .5 percent of your muscle mass per year.

When it comes to cardio and strength training, find what you’re willing to do and then stick with it.
When it comes to cardio and strength training, find what you’re willing to do and then stick with it. (Photo/Dave Edmonds)

That’s nature, the part we can’t control, but with reasonable time and effort, you can nurture your body to develop an adequate LEO physical fitness. The major components here are controlling your diet, exercise, sleep and stress.

Look at your body like you would a vehicle. Your body is the physical part of you that gets you places and then allows you to do things (or not) once you’re there. Put the wrong fuel in any vehicle, fail to maintain it, let it sit and rust, or run it into the ground, and not only will it perform poorly, but it will also wear out way before it should.

For physical fitness pursuits, we all have different levels of interest and tolerance. Just like your off-duty carry, you have to be realistic. I know plenty of cops who own high caliber, beautifully smithed, off-duty roscoes, but because they’re just too big, they rarely carry them. Sure, my Kel-Tec PF-9 might require a double tap, but it is always in my front pants pocket.

Workout routines have to be the same way. Know that you have to be consistent and pick things you can stay committed to. For me, developing muscular strength means three days a week of old-school weight lifting and for cardio, 2-3 days a week of spandex-clad bicycling. You might be able to argue better alternatives, but it’s what I’m willing to do. The bottom line for both cardio and strength training: find what you’re willing to do and then stick with it.

Make food your friend, not foe

For overall physical fitness, your diet is supremely important.

Since all that stuff in your grocery cart is going to turn into you and your family, buy quality foods and don’t be cheap. Try to eat natural foods that come without labels. Because of the taxing LEO lifestyle, we all end up eating some processed foods – packaged consumables with labels that list the ingredients. Get in the habit of reading labels. The smaller the label, the better. Try to avoid carbs when possible. The food industry panders to your high-carb preference because it’s yummy, cheap, easy to push, and more profitable. Don’t be their sucker. Not only do carbs make you fat and maybe even diabetic, but they also play an insidious role in heart disease (search “insulin resistance CAD”).

Although I eat for pleasure occasionally, I mostly eat for good fuel. Before anything goes in my mouth, it’s triaged – healthy, neutral, or unhealthy. Focusing on low carbs, green leafy vegetables, legumes, healthy fats and lean proteins, I try to eat nutrient-rich, unprocessed foods. Mostly, I eat the exact same meals every day. If you’re new to healthy eating, try the Mediterranean diet. It’s healthy and pretty easy.

Make sleep an uncompromised priority

The number one question in every grave shift locker room is, “How much sleep did you get?”

In law enforcement, sleep is seen as a luxury. No matter your diet and exercise, if you don’t get adequate sleep, you’ll stay in the loser’s bracket. Sleep equals recovery for your mind, body and spirit. Also, most of us need at least eight hours of sleep for a healthy hormone balance. That’s crucial because hormones manage your entire biology. Make sleep an uncompromised priority in your life.

Maintain wise boundaries

If you want to live a long life, intentionally monitor and manage your stress and your blood pressure. As a hard charger in my 30s, I knew my high RPM LEO life would cost me later. I actually remember thinking about it and willingly accepting the future price. That was foolishness. I regret it and I’m paying for it now.

Real experience means learning from your failures, so please listen: you can press hard and be productive, but keep some wise boundaries. Let your work ethic be an example to your kids, make sure you can look yourself in the mirror, earn every hour of your pay, but don’t get too emotionally embedded in your paid-by-the-hour role. Save that part of you for your family. Sure, real LEO winners leave with respect; but they also leave with their health, and they have a long and happy retirement.

Let that be you.

This article, originally published 11/28/2018, has been updated.

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