Law enforcement officers: What does health and wellness mean to you?
Officers know that their work entails navigating and struggling with stress; here's why personal wellness advocacy is important
If you’re a seasoned veteran, you’re likely hearing more about officer wellness and health than ever before. If you’re new to the force, you’re likely hearing a lot about these topics too, perhaps for the first time. Either way, it’s excellent news.
You know better than anyone that your job can be stressful. That stress can be the result of difficult calls and can be exacerbated by poor diet, lack of exercise and disrupted sleep patterns.
Think about wellness like this: Fire needs heat, fuel and oxygen. Similarly, the “fire” of poor health and wellness is fueled by three factors:
- Poor lifestyle habits
- A negative personal mindset
In this article, I’ll focus mostly on lifestyle habits.
Between 2010 to 2015, there were 89 law enforcement officer deaths from heart attacks, making up 10% of line-of-duty deaths. Think about that. These officers did not get killed in a shootout or motor vehicle accident or any of the other myriad risks that commonly come to mind for law enforcement officers. They died from a potentially preventable medical event. No graduations, no weddings, no first-born moments; kids grow up without a mom or a dad.
Yes, stress, chronic and acute, can affect heart health. Heredity certainly plays a role. But so too can smoking, high blood pressure, poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle. I am putting it strongly for a reason: I’m hoping to motivate you to make a difference in your own health if that’s what you need.
Your Role in Your Health
Let’s start with the basics. When was the last time you saw your doctor for a check-up? If it has been more than a year, it’s time to make an appointment for a physical to get your bloodwork checked and your heart checked, and to have an open discussion with your doctor about your weight, diet, exercise and stress. If you have seen your doctor recently, are you following their advice? If not, why not? Please don’t tell me you know better. You didn’t go to medical school, and you surely can’t take care of your health on your own. No one can. You need to form a partnership with your healthcare team. If you’re on the fence about certain treatments or recommendations, ask yourself why and talk to your doctor. But don’t let questionable sources, or simple laziness, prevent you from taking care of yourself and your family.
What is your diet like these days? Is it filled with sugar, simple carbs, fats and sodium? Time of day or night is no excuse for eating junk. Nowadays it is much healthier and safer to pack a cooler or insulated lunch bag with healthier options. These healthier options include but are not limited to cut-up vegetables like carrots and celery, as well as fresh fruits. Wheat crackers with hummus, turkey and avocado wraps, salads and leftovers from the night before are examples of healthy meals. If you can keep your meals cool, you’ll be able to eat throughout your shift. Think of your cooler as the ultimate doughnut: always ready and available but without the fat and calories.
Speaking of donuts, have you been to some conferences lately that still offer “power rings” for breakfast? I find it ironic to see these poor breakfast choices, especially at wellness conferences. Why not yogurt or hardboiled eggs? I don’t expect anyone to deprive or punish themselves, but there is a line between enjoyment and overindulgence.
The same goes for the evening when the beer kegs are cracked open and flowing at some law enforcement events. Now there is nothing wrong with enjoying a drink (or a donut) once in a while. It comes down to moderation. This is particularly the case with alcohol, an addictive substance and common coping mechanism. If you are finding yourself overindulging and crossing from enjoyment to something else, it might be time to take a break from booze. If that’s a challenge, you should be totally honest with someone you trust about your drinking. There’s no shame in this – in fact, the opposite. It’s brave.
Poor lifestyle habits also include sleep hygiene. Sleep tends to be the first thing we are willing to sacrifice and the one thing we all want to catch up on later. Shift schedules, overtime, court appearances and last-minute 12-hour days can certainly wreak havoc on one’s sleep. But you can gain some control over your sleep with a few simple habits. First off, try to go to bed and wake up at the same time if you can. Next, use your bedroom for sleep and romance only – no screen time, no TV, no electronics whatsoever. Third, your bedroom should make Dracula proud. Keep it cool, dark and quiet by investing in room darkening shades. Turn your phones off and avoid screen time before bed. Poor sleep and lack of sleep can also contribute to weight gain and poor eating choices, which can become a vicious cycle. Prioritize rest.
In terms of exercise, you should be getting at least 30 minutes three times a week. Exercise can be whatever you want, as long as it gets you sweating, your heart pumping and, ideally, brings you joy. It might be walking, running, weightlifting, CrossFit or a game of pick-up basketball. Some officers enjoy yoga, which also helps to reduce stress levels. The bottom line is that you cannot be sedentary and expect to reduce your stress, improve your health and lose weight.
The Force Multiplier
Now if after reading all this, you’re still not convinced you have what it takes to take care of your health, we need to address mindset. Your attitude plays a huge role in your satisfaction with your job, relationships, enjoyment, and, overall, your health. While feeling “down” occasionally is perfectly normal, it’s a warning sign if those feelings linger for more than two weeks, or if you’re experiencing other symptoms such as poor sleep, low interest, low energy, poor concentration or weight gain. If that’s you, it’s time to talk with a professional about what’s going on. You could be experiencing depression. Depression at any age is not normal, and it is treatable. There is no shame in asking for help. You can do it confidentially, and you owe it to yourself and your family.
Fire needs heat, fuel and oxygen to persist. Poor health persists when we fail to control our stress, lapse into unhealthy habits and allow a negative mindset to control us. If you begin to address your eating habits, exercise routine and sleep hygiene, as well as work to cultivate a positive mindset, you take away the fuel for poor health and increase your wellness. You give yourself, your family and your community the gift of health. What can be better than that?