If you have worked in public safety long enough there have been many partners, co-workers or friends who have had a career cut short with injuries. Public safety is a collection of jobs that often do not promote a healthy lifestyle or career longevity. Long hours, fatigue, stress, poor nutritional habits, and lack of activity all lead the public safety worker down a long but predictable road.
Not enough people in public safety stay thin or fit past rookie school and initial testing. Yet we are called upon to place our bodies in physically stressful scenarios, balance, lift and react to an ever changing environment. One of the nice things about public safety is that many of the physical patterns are predictable and prevention of pain and injury is not that difficult. Most injuries stem from poor flexibility or poor muscular balance. The musculature is simply too weak to handle the activity attempted.
Instead of lecturing on and on about how to lift, how to transfer a patient/suspect, etc. we will examine and attempt to remedy the root cause of the problem; lack of activity. We will dispel myths common to exercise and fitness and hopefully help the first responder to realize that a few simple exercises performed a few times a week can and will substantially reduce the pain and suffering incurred by public safety professionals.
When it comes to fitness and wellness, less can be more. As little as 30 minutes a day of cardiovascular exercise at least 5 days per week will have a beneficial effect. Simple things like taking the stairs or parking farther away (when not on a call) will increase your overall caloric expenditure. Replacing coffee or soft drinks with water, making better choices when ordering food, eating only half your portion, and saving the rest for a few hours later will make a big difference in reducing your caloric intake and aid in weight loss.
One of the biggest physical issues we all deal with is postural. Unfortunately, in public safety professions, we deal with people who do not get sick or injured in a bed or other convenient to deal with place; they are usually on the floor and usually in odd and inaccessible positions, bleeding or broken or high on something. Add to that countless hours sitting, leaning forward, bending and lifting that will all take their toll on an un-fit body. These improper postural patterns are predictable and therefore preventable.
Faulty posture sets the body into a state of imbalance where flexibility and range of motion are limited (loss of power), neuromuscular pathways are disrupted (loss of control and consistency) and detrimental forces are placed on the spine and joints (increased chance of injury). Muscular imbalance causes certain muscles to become short and tight while others lengthen and weaken. This imbalance changes the dynamics of joint and spine movement, which both accelerates chronic muscle, joint and disc wear and greatly increases the chance of acute injury.
Along with increasing the risk of overuse injury, muscle imbalances also disrupt communication within the neuromuscular system. Short tight muscles display a lower activation threshold. In layman's terms, they become dominant and will fire at times when they should be less active or inactive. The over-activation of these dominant muscles leads to deeper imbalances secondary to the decreased neural control to their opposing muscles. Simply stated, when one muscle becomes tight and overactive its opposing muscle becomes loose and lazy. Proper muscle balance and postural stability are essential to consistently coordinate the precise muscle contraction and relaxation needed to reduce the risk of injury and allow you to lift and function properly.
Lower Body Implications
In general, poor posture leads to a forward tilt of the pelvis, usually from tight hip flexors. This causes the abdominal wall to lengthen and weaken. As a result of the forward pelvic tilt, there is an excess curvature of the lumbar spine (lordosis) causing the spinal extensors to chronically shorten and weaken. Another detrimental effect of this forward tilt is a weakening of the gluteals. The glutes play a major role in hip extension and stabilization of the pelvis and lumbar spine.
Upper Body Implications
In the upper body poor posture commonly presents with rounded shoulders and a forward head. This chronically shortens the pectorals, neck extensors, upper trapezius, and shoulder internal rotators. This leads to a weakness in the upper back, neck flexors, and shoulder external rotators. This causes a constant strain on the ligaments of the shoulder and neck leading to dysfunction and increased chance of injury.
So your mom was correct: sit up straight, do not slouch. Be aware of how you are sitting, typing, sleeping etc. Small changes in posture will substantially decrease the risk of injury, and you will feel better and move better.
Stay tuned for the next installment of public safety fitness and wellness where we will begin to give you stretches and exercises that can be done in your home or duty station, to work on some of the problems we have talked about and hopefully keep you fit, well, and un-injured.