One cop's road to better heart health and physical wellness

I went from being at fairly high risk of suffering a heart attack, to being a low risk of having that happen to me — and not only did I make my heart healthier, I became happier

Pulse of Policing 2015: The State of Law Enforcement is an ongoing research venture aimed at examining the current state of policing in America from the individual, organizational, and industrial perspectives. The below article is a part of our first series focused on the individual – a series that will also examine issues such as PTSI and the strain on morale for individual officers. Learn more about Pulse of Policing.

Heart attacks have been the third-leading cause of police line of duty deaths in the U.S. over the past several years, according to the Officer Down Memorial Page. Along with high cholesterol and high blood pressure, one of the most significant factors contributing to heart attacks and poor heart health is obesity. And as much as we may not like to admit it, we have far too many fat cops out there on the streets. I know. I was once one of them. 

The American Journal of Preventative Medicine reported in 2014 that 40 percent of U.S. police officers, firefighters, and security officers are considered obese and are among the fattest professions in the country (along with clergy, engineers and truckers). 

We’ve all signed on to our profession of wearing the shield to be prepared to help all people physically and emotionally. That means we must have strong bodies and healthy minds.
We’ve all signed on to our profession of wearing the shield to be prepared to help all people physically and emotionally. That means we must have strong bodies and healthy minds. (Image Courtesy of Mark St. Hilaire)

My Journey to Better Heart Health
I am living, breathing proof that this problem can be defeated. When I was a young officer — more than 20 years ago — I struggled with my weight, tipping the scales at more than 350 pounds. My health and physical fitness were poor and my job performance struggled. My joints hurt, I was winded going up and down stairs and I dreaded the times I actually needed to leave the cruiser to run (it was not fast or pretty). My few uniforms were bursting at the seams and I had little pride in my appearance. I was a mess in my early 30s. I reached a point of being sick and tired all the time. 

It took some time, discipline and perseverance to reduce to the size that I’ve been maintaining for the past 19 years. It took small and consistent steps to slowly return to exercising and eating right. I developed stronger emotional and physical endurance, including better relationships with individuals who supported and joined in my wellness efforts. It meant visits to my primary care doctor, dentist, and other health care professionals yearly to ensure my physical and emotional well-being. 

I started eating a vegetarian food plan in 1995. That was also the same year that I started educating myself about good physical, mental, and spiritual health in articles and books. For example, Dr. Kevin Gilmartin’s Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement was a real game changer for me. Beginning in 1997, I started to go in for physical check-ups bi-annually — I go annually now that I’m more than 50 years old. This has helped keep me solidly on track. Even though I’ve struggled with my weight since childhood, I have not lost ground since really deciding to change my situation. 

After much of the weight came off (due to that change in diet), I started running with coworkers and friends as part of my exercise routine after a coworker got me interested in running law enforcement sponsored road races. Also, for the past eight years I work out several mornings a week at a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) class at a Ju Jitsu dojo. I started doing this after an off-duty incident made me I realize that I needed to develop better hand to hand tactics. I also do other defense training that my agency won't provide — off duty, on my own dime and outside agency. 

The result was dropping more than 150 pounds in the span of just over a year. I went from being at fairly high-risk of suffering a heart attack to being low-risk— and not only did I make my heart healthier, I became happier.

Nowadays I have a cooler bag I bring my meals to work in so as to ensure that I keep on track with my plan even when I’m on duty. I eat vegetarian so I put in Tupperware containers of salad, protein — such as fish, nuts, cheese, or yogurt — and some fruit. And yes, this does get me through my shift! 

I’m happy and proud that I take care of my whole body and mind today. My own kids have never seen me fat. They know that I don’t eat certain foods — like sugar and white or refined flour products, for example — and that I don’t drink alcoholic beverages (sober 20 years). My family respects my eating and lifestyle, and that’s one of the things that helps me take care of myself so much better now than I did when I was younger.

The continuing progress of physical fitness and proper nutrition has redefined my body shape into a strong core and torso.  I have greater stamina and endurance which is vital as a law enforcement professional. 

As I’ve aged, proper fitness is the key to performing my law enforcement duties enthusiastically and safely. More importantly, it has a very positive impact on my family and off-duty time. Here are some questions to consider as a law enforcement officer:

Are you ready to go 100 percent when it’s time to take action on (and off) duty?
Are you ready to go hands-on with a combative subject?
Are you prepared for a foot chase, running up several flights of stairs, or to endure a long walk over various terrain?
Are you capable of removing others — including yourself — out of harm’s way when situations go bad?
Do you take pride in your appearance? 
Are you being treated with respect for your position of authority?
Have you considered the impact of your health on your loved ones and their futures?
Have you considered what the quality of your life will be after you retire from your law enforcement career?

We’ve all signed on to our profession of wearing the shield to be prepared to help all people physically and emotionally. That means we must have strong bodies and healthy minds. Consider that:

You deserve a better quality and standard in life
Your co-workers, the community that you serve and especially your family deserve a better and healthier you — they are all depending on you
You need to take care of your health and well-being now to lay the ground work for your life after your law enforcement career

There are no magic solutions. Everyone has a different way of cutting excess weight and becoming more heart healthy, but as law enforcement professionals, we need to take immediate action. Officers are suffering the serious effects of poor health. This has to change. 

As you consider this call to action, please reflect upon the fact that within yourself you possess the real potential to change your course of action and your destiny. Be the change needed. Be the example for other people in our society — especially our younger generations — to be lean, fit (and when necessary, fighting) machines. 

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