As I type this I’m sitting with my feet propped up and there’s an ice pack on my left knee. This is pretty typical for both me and my husband and for many of our fellow retired police officer friends. In fact, it’s become a running joke at many of the conferences we attend; more than a few of us with 25 or more years in this business “creek” and “pop” when we get up, or are bragging about the state-of-the-art knee or hip replacement we just rehabbed from. So many of us are now victims of our youthful enthusiasm for this job; too many years of abusing our bodies in the name of criminal justice and law enforcement training are now coming back to haunt us, but not defeat us.
Aging is an inescapable fact of life, and heck, it sure beats the alternative! But what if you’re one of the thousands of cops out there who thought they’d be retired or assigned to a desk job later in your career but instead you’re still out there on patrol, chasing younger and younger criminals?
No matter what your age (or assignment), there’s a good chance that you’re not quite in the same shape you were when you got out of the academy. The Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research studied approximately 1,700 officers from different law enforcement agencies across the country from 1983 to 1993. Their results show that when compared with the general population, police officers’ average fitness levels were below normal in the areas of aerobic fitness, body fat and abdominal strength and only ‘average’ in upper body strength and lower-back flexibility. The data also showed that law enforcement officers were less fit in most areas than at least half of all American citizens. This same study went on to determine that after age 40, police officer fitness declined even further. The good Dr. Cooper emphasized over and over again that law enforcement, regardless of what we think about it, is basically a sedentary activity. Just because you’re not sitting behind a desk doesn’t mean you’re not sitting. Combine this with fatigue, shift work, poor diet choices and advancing age and it’s a miracle that we’re not in worse shape!
When I was the crime prevention sergeant in my agency our team spent most of the year presenting programs in the schools and for community groups; satisfying work but not very physical. In the summer we were assigned to bike patrol in our busy downtown area. After a few weeks on our bikes, eating healthy and getting our tan on, we were all changed people. Most of us had at least a decade or two on the job, but the more we rode the less physical issues we seemed to have. Some of us stayed in shape after bike season was over; some didn’t. It can be hard to maintain a fitness program, especially as we assume more and more responsibility both at work and at home.
If regular exercise has eluded you lately, start with doing something you like to do anyway. Stop worrying about spending two hours a day in the gym with a personal trainer. If you have the time, money and enthusiasm for that, go for it! But lots of us don’t. Think about what you like to do that involves some sort of physical movement and or challenge. My husband and I both had to quit running after multiple knee injuries and reconstructions, so we bought mountain bikes. I had forgotten how much I loved to ride! Do you like to hike? Then start walking, or get on the treadmill, crank up the incline and pretend you’re in the mountains. Are shooting sports your thing?
Incorporate some movement in your range training, and on the days you can’t get to the range, simulate some of those movements at the gym or in your living room. In fact, think about what movements you need to do at work to be successful and practice those during your off duty time. Regular routine of wind sprints from a sitting position in your personal car can make all of the difference the next time you have to run down a 14 year old shoplifter. So what if the neighbors think you’re a little crazy? You’re a cop, they probably already do. You can make it even more fun by involving the family. Compete with your kids or grandkids (or your spouse, partner or a neighbor kid who needs a little attention) to see who can bail out of the driver’s seat and sprint 100 yards the fastest. Fitness should be fun, and adding some family bonding time and some laughter to it means you’re more likely to keep doing it.
The bottom line is this: get moving! If you like to run, do it. If you think joining a class or a club or a CrossFit gym will help you stay motivated, try it. If your dog has the same “spare tire” around his midsection that you have, then snap on that leash and get him (and you) back in shape. Be realistic about your abilities, and don’t overdo it, get injured and have to stop. If you haven’t exercised in awhile, start slow. See if one (or more) of your friends at work wants to get moving with you. There’s nothing like making a commitment to another person to help keep you motivated.
Finally, check you mindset. Your attitude toward your personal physical fitness should be similar to your attitude toward officer safety. You have to be vigilant about your safety and vigilant about your fitness; remember, the two are deeply connected. The older you get, the healthier and more fit you want to strive to be. Use your “Not Today!” attitude and make healthy choices about your diet and exercise a daily commitment, mentally as well as physically. You’ll feel better, look better, and most importantly, you’ll perform better. You’ll have the confidence to say to that 17 year old burglar who just decided to run on you “Go ahead and run kid, I’m right behind you.”