Training for firearms, fugitives HEALTHY CHOICES and ... trans-fats?

Regular stressors of the job are prompting more agencies to provide unique health and fitness incentives

     New York City restaurants, fast food chains and deli counters are now required to post — in plain sight — the number of calories in their food. This is one more way America's health-challenged population is becoming aware of what its favorites are costing them; news that's not geared to help the wallet, but the waistline.

     Obesity rates continue to rise steadily among American adults and children, and the field of law enforcement mirrors that trend. You can blame it on McDonald's or genetics or both, but that doesn't change the risks associated with diet and fitness-related health problems.

     In response, some agencies are finding new ways to make their employees' health a priority. Many insist that a healthy lifestyle is important in being an effective officer of the law; so captains are telling their patrol to shape up. And rather than seeing it as another 'fluff' program, officers are taking advantage.

Involving the food authorities

     The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) wanted so much to improve the health of their officers, that they took money previously allotted to hire a staff psychologist and hired a full-time, on-site dietitian instead.

     "We implemented the educational program because we didn't have anything that was a well-organized, concerted and ongoing effort to address weight and diet among our employees," states Dr. Kevin Jablonski, LAPD.

     Rana Parker, LAPD's full-time staff dietitian, began her career with the Department of Veterans Affairs in West Los Angeles and, before coming to LAPD, worked for Head Start conducting wellness programs for the teachers and staff. "I found that so rewarding, that when I found the LAPD job," says Parker, "a huge organization and a chance to help people who are public servants, I thought that would be a really fun thing to do. Officers sacrifice a lot in their job, and I think they deserve some attention."

     The focus from the start was on recruits, some of whom were "coming in really out of shape, and sometimes quite overweight," says Parker. Her main goal is to introduce the idea of having a dietitian on board, and then promote realistic ideas of healthy eating … what that entails, and how it can be done on the job.

     LAPD training includes daily physical exercises, nutrition exercises and some psychological interventions in addition to regular courses like firearms and tactics. The nutrition in-services Parker conducts complement the recruits' standard field training to provide an entire diet and exercise package.

     If a recruit comes in and doesn't pass the physical fitness test, they go through the program for four weeks. If they can't pass the physical test after that, they get another four weeks to try. In that time, recruits receive 8 hours of nutrition training.

     Others can benefit as well. During roll calls and training events at detective meetings, squad meetings, etc., Parker gives presentations that range from 5 minutes to 2 hours. Topics include things like how to choose healthy foods when eating out and reading food labels. She even extends this to the communications division, an area that she finds has particular problems due to the sedentary nature of the job.

     Parker and her supervisors are working to provide individual counseling as well, in the hopes that soon more people will feel comfortable coming to her with questions, concerns and referrals.

     "I've noticed the culture of police officers is that they don't say too much during the presentations," says Parker. "But they'll talk to me afterward; I've had a lot of people seek me out to talk." She mentions that officers also feel comfortable e-mailing her with questions that are specific to them, whether they pertain to cholesterol or if they're expecting a baby.

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