Police officers and cardiovascular disease

By Kathy Vonk

If you had a crystal ball that was never wrong, and it told you that you would have a heart attack and die in exactly three weeks – unless you engaged in moderately intense physical activity for one hour each day… would you do it?  What if it were three months instead of three weeks?  Three years?  If you were told the exact day you would die from cardiovascular disease – but you had the power to delay that date 10 or even 20 years… and all you had to do was reduce your calories consumed and increase your daily physical activity… would you do it?  Would you spend the time to educate yourself on how many calories you could eat, spend the time to figure out how many vegetable, fruit, fat, sugar and fiber servings you should eat or limit each day?  Would you spend the effort engaging in daily physical activity and counting your calories?  Boy that sounds like a lot of work!  But what if you knew it would cancel your date with death?

In light of recent attention given to “younger” officers in their 30’s and 40’s experiencing heart attacks during, or shortly after strenuous physical activity on the job… a struggle with a juvenile at a high school basketball game, or a foot pursuit through back yards and alleys… it might be valuable to revisit some alarming statistics:

1. We as police officers live an average of 15 years less than the average American.[1] 
2. Nearly 50% of us will die from heart disease within five years of retirement.[2]  
3. Statistically, we are 25 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease (CVD) than from the action of a suspect.[3]  

There are many more stats relative to CVD and police work, but just these three should sound alarm within our ranks – especially when CVD is by and large preventable through the lifestyle choices that we make every single day. 

True, our genetics play a part in our chances of acquiring certain diseases, but just by knowing what climbs our family tree and by taking the appropriate preventive action, we can elude the contraction of many common diseases that are passed from one generation to the next. This preventive action primarily involves healthy lifestyle choices to include a nutritious diet without excess calories, and adequate exercise. 

Beyond the limitations that our genes place on us, every other major risk factor for cardiovascular disease is controllable.  The seven major risk factors for cardiovascular disease include genetics, sedentary lifestyle, obesity, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, smoking, and diabetes.  We have quite a bit of control over each and every one of these, but it takes time and effort, especially with age as our metabolism slows.  Poor diet and lack of exercise are the root causes of many risk factors, as a sedentary lifestyle (police work is primarily sedentary) slowly but eventually leads to being overweight and then obese.  Diabetes, heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol are just some of the conditions that arise from obesity, though anyone can have any one of these without being overweight or obese.   

To make matters worse, we have been living a time in which physical education has been all but cut from the public school curriculum (sitting on the bleachers and observing is considered participation in many places), and fast food chains and junk food vending machines are commonplace in elementary and high school cafeterias.  Our overweight and obese children are now entering the workforce, whether they are sitting behind a desk or in a patrol car.  We are experiencing serious health consequences in our society and it may be spilling over into our own rank and file.

Unfortunately in today’s world of technology, physical activity is on the decline (computers, internet, television, video games, escalators and elevators) and fast meals abundant in fat and calories are weighing heavily in everyday life.  Add the stress of police work, restricted time for dinner breaks, limited restaurant choices while on duty, overtime and rotating shift work, and disrupted sleep patterns – and we have a recipe for physiological disaster!

Fortunately, since we are all such control freaks, we can choose to hold the reigns in our own hands and put the time and effort into our future.  We have two choices:  Take control of our destiny, or be controlled by it.  We can figure out how many calories are appropriate each day by using the Harris Benedict Equation,[4]  but more importantly exercise self-control when we reach our limit.  We have the power to decide to exercise every day, and to choose something we enjoy - so that we are apt to continue.  Just 30 minutes each day (cumulative), can result in significant health-related improvements. We should initiate our program at an easy intensity rather than starting out like gang-busters, in order to minimize muscle soreness and improve our chances of exercising again.  If we meet the definition of overweight or “obese” (female waist circumference 35” or greater and male 40” or greater) we should first consult a doctor before starting a program. 

If weight loss is a goal, we must accept the fact that we will be hungry at times.  The bottom line to weight loss is that the calories that we consume should be less than the calories that we require.  When this deficit is created, we will be hungry.  One way to minimize these hunger pangs is by packing our daily intake with fruits and vegetables:  they are nutrient rich but low in calories, so we basically get more food in comparison to caloric-dense foods such as hamburgers and French fries. 

For moderate but permanent weight loss, a calorie deficit of 300-500 calories each day is the recommended goal.  This can be achieved by eating less, exercising more, or a little bit of both (the recommended option).  We should take care not to restrict calories in excess however, so that we don’t run the risk of depressing our metabolism.  We should also keep in mind that one pound of fat contains 3500 calories, so permanent weight loss will be slow – but we have the power to be patient and determined!  Moreover, once our weight goal is reached, we can add that 500 calories back into our daily allotment in order to maintain our new established weight.  In other words, the calorie-deficit period is only temporary, but the beneficial lifestyle habits should remain!

Another strategy that will help those of us who work the street, is to pack our own lunch and keep it with us in our patrol car.  This way, healthy snacks are always available to nibble on when we get stuck on a traffic point or the like.  Why would this be important?  When our blood sugar is low we run the risk of making poor food choices, but having a pre-packed snack on hand could mean the difference between a healthy piece of fruit, or a super-sized fast food meal after we clear the call and rush to the first and fastest source of food we see.  One fast food meal can pack as many as 1800-2000 calories in just one sitting!  For many of us, this exceeds our entire daily allotment for calories, saturated fat and cholesterol! 

More importantly as police officers, keeping a constant blood sugar level will help our minds and bodies perform better at a moment’s notice, when the “fight or flight” response is induced.  Our brain has the ability to function more clearly under a great deal of stress, and our muscles will be capable of contracting more forcefully for a longer duration, if we have the necessary nutrients immediately available.  As a police officer this may be an unexpected life-or-death struggle, so it may be worth dispersing our calories throughout the day (eating several smaller meals every two or three hours rather than three large servings several hours apart). 

As an officer working the street, or as a detective dealing with violent criminals, we may spend our entire career preparing for that one incident.  As past history has shown, even working a desk job in City Hall or working in the courthouse can prove to be a locale for a critical incident.  How we have chosen to prepare for that one incident in our career may determine the outcome; whether we outlast the suspect and win the encounter, whether we win the encounter but suffer a heart attack during recovery, or whether the suspect is able to gain control of our weapon and use it against us and others.  It’s our choice to take control of that crystal ball and determine our own destiny.  It just may take a little time and effort… 

Kathleen Vonk is a street cop of 19 years with a BS in Exercise Science and a BA in Criminal Justice.  She is a wellness expert, consultant, and trainer for the Michigan Commission on Law Enforcement Standards (MCOLES), a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) by the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA), a Certified Physical Fitness Specialist, and Health Promotion Director (Cooper Institute of Aerobics Research, Dallas).  She is the primary fitness instructor for the Washtenaw Community College Police Academy in Ann Arbor Michigan.  In addition to working the road full time, she serves as the Health Promotion Director for the Ann Arbor Police Department.  She can be reached at kathyvonk@aol.com


[1]  Tracy, Tom.  “Fit for Duty:  Demand It.”  Police.  March 1993. p. 18

[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] http://www.bmi-calculator.net/bmr-calculator/harris-benedict-equation/

The response to our Newsline: "Preventing Tragedy, Cops, Kids and Guns" was off the chart. Obviously, this is one very important issue, as it should be, and we thought it would be a good idea to share some great emails we got regarding this.


Your article on Guns & Kids in the Street Survival newsletter was excellent. I confess that when I saw the headline I was expecting something along the line of "get rid of guns, nobody but the cops should have guns and we're not sure about all of them". You wrote a great piece. It was direct, to the point, balanced, and offered simple and practical advice.

I grew up in a family where Mom and Dad both hunted. I was taught to respect the power of guns and that I was absolutely responsible for what happened, good or bad, when I had a gun in my hands. I carried that responsibility through many wonderful hunting experiences, a Navy career, and, so far, over twelve years as a cop.

Thank you again for a great article. I'd enjoy reading more of your work.

Scott Stroman, SGT
Sioux Falls, SD, Police Department


Sgt. Smith,

I applaud your column about demystifying firearms for children. I am a retired soldier and current police officer. I have three children and one grandchild on the way. I have always taught my children as I was taught. Firearms are a tool and can be a fun hobby. I have taught them when and where to shoot and what to do if it is required to use one in self defense. They always love to shoot when we go to the range, but when we are home they couldn't care less, not even asking about them. I keep my firearms in a gun safe, regardless, but it is great to hear when someone advocates responsibility versus playing the politically correct blame game.

Ricky D. Winters
Wilson, NC


Very poignant article, and well written.

I'm a parole officer and firearms instructor in Michigan. I have relatives - brothers and cousins - who are in the profession, the military, and some are active (addicted, actually) hunters. I forwarded your article to them, as it invited me to do so, and as another reminder from me on the subject.

With dozens of kids of various ages around, I hope our family never has to endure such a tragedy.

Thank you for the work on the article.

Robert Faulk
Parole Officer
Michigan Department of Corrections


Howdy Sergeant Smith,

I just read your article in Street Survival Newsline #817 regarding children and firearms. I have been a deputy with the Harris County Sheriff's Office in Houston for almost 22 years. Most of that time we lived in a rural area... My wife always insisted on keeping a handgun as well as a long gun handy while I was at work. She is an exceptional marksman.

We had small 3 children and weapon accessibility created a problem. At a very early age I began to demystify firearms in the eyes of my young 'uns. I shot milk jugs filled with water to show them what a bullet does. I patiently answered every question that my children had and allowed them to handle my weapons if they asked to.

Our rule was never to touch any weapon unless I had handed it to them.

When they were old enough, we plinked together in our pasture. We used the "Eddie Eagle" message religiously. I knew that we were onto a successful technique when I saw my 6 year old daughter enforcing proper range discipline with my 4 year old son while playing with sticks in the front yard. She had him wearing ear protection and shooting glasses, keeping his finger off the "trigger", keeping his body behind the firing line and his "muzzle" pointed down range.

We never had any problem with the children and our weapons, and all of them grew to become skilled, safe shooters. Your article was right on the money and is the best advice regarding kids and guns that I have ever read. I look forward to your next article in Newsline.

Thank you,
J.B. Ellis
Harris County Sheriff's Office
Major Violators Unit


Sgt. Brantner-Smith,

Great article on guns and kids. This is a message that can not be expressed enough. Thanks for putting it out to the masses in such a simple and direct way. This is the same thing I have been teaching and telling my officers for years.

Thanks again,

Kelley Fryar
Sergeant, Northside ISD Police Department
San Antonio, Texas


Sergeant Smith,

I wanted to drop you a quick line and thank you for your recent article on duty weapon safety as it applies to children. I have to admit that I cringed when I saw the title of the article, auromatically expecting a Brady style 'guns are evil and kids must be taught to avoid them at all costs' sort of piece.

Instead, you did a wonderful job of describing how and why kids need to be taught to respect firearms as the tools they are rather then a talisman or forbidden object. Your approach is exactly how I've approached such issues with my kids, and I expect that your words are going to save lives.

Thank you again.

Tom Bates



Thank you for the article on guns and family. I am a Police Officer of 20+ years with a family. One of the first things I did with my duty revolver at my first agency was to take it home and show it to my 5 year old daughter...I unloaded it, showed her how to make sure it was unloaded, and handed it to her. I was curious to find out if a little 5 year old had the ability to discharge a weapon, especially one that would be in the house.

She picked up the gun and attempted to pull the trigger with her little hand. When she could not pull the trigger, she calmly reached up with her thumb to pull the hammer back. When that did not work, due to the lack of strength, she then used BOTH thumbs to cock the gun, then pulled the trigger. She had NEVER held a gun before, but had “watched cowboys on T V do that.” They are exposed to more than we can imagine.

ALL my children go to the range as soon as allowed and learn to shoot. The mantra ALL GUNS ARE LOADED is impressed upon them at an early age.

We hear of all the accidental shootings with “unloaded guns” that are not secured. ALL children are curious. They WILL pick up a gun if they find it. If we are to make sure our kids are “gun proofed” those of us in law enforcement must expose our kids to things that many parents of their friends think are bad. Shielding your kids from the truth is not always best…

Kathy Church
Los Rios P D, Sacramento, CA


Thanks to everyone who responded, we love to hear from our readers!

Dave Smith, Lead Instructor, “Street Survival” seminar

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