Call To Action In The “Battle Of The Bulge”

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Wisecracks about cops and donuts are annoying, but how far are they from the truth?

Sgt. Mark St. Hilaire, one of a half dozen instructors who spoke on wellness topics at the latest ILEETA annual training conference, cites two pertinent items from the news of late:

  • In the US, more than 40% of police officers, firefighters, and security personnel are obese, the highest prevalence of all professions, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of data from the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Obese was defined as having a body mass index of 30 or above.
  • In England, despite a nationwide drive to slim down frontline officers, a major police equipment store recently reported selling out of XXXL duty belts, designed for waists of 50-56 inches, according to London’s Daily Mail website. Before a fitness campaign was launched, 64% of that city’s bobbies and police staff were said to be overweight, obese, or morbidly obese.

“Health and wellness take a back seat in law enforcement training,” laments St. Hilaire, a 24-year veteran of the Natick (MA) PD in the Boston metro area. “As trainers, we need to be the change agents within our agencies.”

In the absence of administrative commitment to a full-scale fitness program, St. Hilaire urges that every supervisor and instructor begin integrating “brief, light-hearted tips” about health benefits into roll calls and in-service training, to raise awareness and, hopefully, ignite motivation for multigenerational audiences.

“These might be as simple as suggesting that officers pack a ‘tactical lunch bag,’ a small cooler with healthy snacks and meals to bring with them to work so they have an alternative to a doomsday diet of fast-food or have nutritious energy boosters if they get stuck at a post,” St. Hilaire says. “Small improvements add up.”

In the interest of generalized wellness, these short briefings can be expanded beyond weight control, he says, to include practical information about emotional health, fatigue and sleep problems, physical fitness for duty, addictions and substance abuse, officer suicide awareness, and other law enforcement-related mind and body concerns.

To capture officers’ attention, he likes to point out that even in urban areas backup is often at least two minutes away…and then ask for a candid self-assessment: “Are you in good enough shape to go hands-on with a resistant, combative subject for two full minutes?”

(Force Science research has proven that that can be a tough standard. In experiments with street-level personnel, FS researchers have found that today’s average officer can be physically depleted in less than 60 seconds of full-out exertion.)

Good conditioning is much more than purely a vanity or image issue, St. Hilaire stresses. Heart attacks are the third greatest cause of line-of-duty deaths, he points out. And among other consequences of poor fitness, he foresees a day when legal problems will arise.

“What will happen if a citizen is hurt because an officer was not fit enough to prevent or stop an attack?” he asks. “Will the officer be liable because he or she wasn’t able to perform their duty correctly?”

The current state of police wellness, he warns, is “a wakeup call for our profession. We’d better hear it and do something about changing our culture.”

St. Hilaire can be reached at: mark@rescueteamwellness.com. He is willing to share lesson plan ideas and resources for quick-hit topics that can promote healthier habits on the job.

Our thanks to “Coach” Bob Lindsey, a graduate of the certification course in Force Science Analysis, for helping to facilitate this report.

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