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.
Parker says she often gets a range of reactions during her programs — from blank stares to jokes to lots of nods and interest. "Some people are not ready to hear it, and they joke around," she says. "But overall I'd say their reaction has been positive. One detective said to me it was the best idea the department's ever had. It's a little bit of a culture shift, but I think the [results] are going to happen over time."
She notes they've already begun to see results with the new recruits, some of whom have lost inches off their waistlines. Parker keeps track of the weight and body stats of those who have gone through the program.Custom facilities
Wellness coordinator Pat Reilly with the Orange County (Florida) Sheriff's Office also knows that diet and exercise go hand-in-hand, and aims to get it down to an easy, enjoyable science.
The sheriff's office has been using The Program, or FDS (Fitness Diagnostic System), at its facilities for the past five years. The Program is a total comprehensive gym combined with an easy and accurate testing process that tracks individual progress. Each time employees return to work out, they can see results from their previous test as well as their entire documented fitness history.
One heart attack can be pricey — financially and otherwise. Reilly suggests that though they obviously cannot track what they've saved from such occurrences; they know it goes a long way toward prevention.
"This one gentleman did a test and, in a year, he has lost 50 pounds of fat," says Reilly. "I can show you it's fat weight, not overall body weight. That means we've [helped avoid] cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes and stroke. So did we save him from having a heart attack? You bet we did."
The program is set up and runs itself, and the agency has only had to rework some pieces of strength equipment to fit the testing system. Reilly feels it is especially credible because the results are non-subjective and all "digital-diagnostic," lessening the chance for human error.
The gym (all furnished by Mid Florida Fitness Distributors) offers free weights, yoga, defensive tactics classes, indoor cycling and a total gym; and the testing part helps them to show progress or lack of progress among employees using it. Members can even login and see where they're at online. In addition, users can choose to "access information from other agencies or groups," says Reilly. However, department statistics stay in-house and are private to just its group.
Orange County Sheriff's Office does not mandate physical fitness standards, except for during the hiring process. Regardless, Reilly sees results amongst those participating — particularly in performance, quality of life issues, health and a lack of injuries.
The department has eight separate fitness centers strategically located throughout the county so that all employees have 24-hour access, with the testing program located at the main center. All facilities and programs are free of charge to employees.Behind the health screen
Despite eating well and logging in time on the treadmill, signs of poor physical health are not always visible, and it is not always about achieving weight goals. Good health also requires vigilance and follow-ups with physicians and health care providers. Although most insurance policies cover quality care, sometimes it is not enough for individuals with hectic schedules, who may find it difficult to make and maintain regular appointments.
For several years, the fire department in Hoover, Alabama has made on-site health screenings mandatory for its firefighters. And now, Capt. Jim Coker with the Hoover PD would like to do the same.
"After looking at their program and discussing it, we decided this was something we definitely needed to pursue as well," Coker says. The fire department contracts medical screening services on-site, and it usually takes about three days to rotate through the different shifts.
The screening generally covers things such as blood pressure, blood tests, X-rays: "Same things you'd get if you go to your doctor and asked for a physical," says Coker. If everything goes well with the budget, he hopes the program can be offered at no cost to officers.
This is a vital health maintenance tool. Coker recalls one firefighter whose serious risk of prostate cancer was caught early-on by the mandatory screening. Because of the quick detection, he was able to treat it successfully.
"We look at this as a very positive thing for our employees because it prevents damage to their personal health," says Coker. "It's also a positive aspect for the department in that, if you can catch and cure things early, then that does not deplete our manpower on the street.
"What a great service to offer your employees," says Coker. "What a great way to say that you're a valuable employee to us; we value your health."
Sure, some officers may seek out health information on their own, but with the challenges that come with this high-stress, unpredictable job, a little extra support can't hurt. Most departments will tell you: Success is better achieved as a team.
Parker recommends agencies interested in hiring a dietitian, either full-time or to conduct programs or in-services, contact the American Dietetic Association (ADA).Helpful tips for a fit force:
Not all agencies have high-end facilities or round-the-clock dietitians. Nevertheless, any department can design and implement fitness incentives that are suited to their needs. It is also helpful to be mindful of healthy eating tips like these, specifically geared toward law enforcement officers:Always eat breakfast
"When I first came [on the force] I was working a night shift and we had very few places open in the middle of the night," says Capt. Jim Coker of the Hoover (Alabama) Police Department. "I would end up eating breakfast three times a day. You'd eat breakfast in the middle of the night, you'd get off, go home, and your family's eating what? Breakfast. You'd go to bed and what do you eat when you wake up? Breakfast."
LAPD staff dietician Rana Parker advises officers to get into the habit of eating (a healthy) breakfast within an hour or two of when they wake, regardless of the time of the day they start.Bad food, smart choices
It can be tough to eat well if nothing but burger joints pepper your patrol. That's why Parker sometimes goes on ride-alongs to see what she's up against. "I can't tell them 'choose healthy foods' when I have no idea what their work day's like or what foods they have to choose from," she says.
A lot of convenience stores now offer more than hot dogs under heat lamps. Parker finds energy bars and lean sandwiches to be a good pick. If you're stuck at the unhealthiest restaurant in town, she recommends limiting the portions a bit as an easy way to cut a few hundred calories.
Dr. Kevin Jablonski of the LAPD reminds that taste is all in your head. "By the time you're on the department for a few years your taste buds have developed a liking for some generally unhealthy stuff. Studies suggest that foods high in sodium taste better because it stimulates our tongue, and our taste buds respond more actively to the flavors. When you sit down to eat healthy, who's in control? Is it your brain saying, 'I need to eat low-fat, high-fiber vegetables?' Or is it your taste buds going, 'Hey, that pepperoni pizza glistening with oil looks good.' It's so challenging, and the non-law enforcement population is similar."Snack wisely and plan ahead
Parker teaches officers what kinds of snacks are good to bring in the car, and what will last a few hours, should officers get stuck on a call. "One thing I always tell them is, just like they prepare for their work day with their weapons and gear, be prepared for the fact that you might not know where your next meal is coming from. Stock your car with a bottle of water, energy bars, trail mix, bananas; things like that."
To this effect, Parker has also spoken with the company that supplies the LAPD's vending machines, noting she would like to see the machines include at least a few healthy alternatives. "Not that all the unhealthy food is gone," says Parker, "but I'd like to see a few more healthy options out there."