Number One Killer
Unless you have been without access to media outlets, chances are you have heard much information regarding heart disease. Medical groups and more specifically, the American Heart Association has made it their very mission to educate as many people as possible as to the dangers of the disease. Being that it is the leading cause of death for American’s, both men and women¹, these awareness campaigns are much needed. Coronary Artery Disease is the most common condition and can lead to heart attacks. Campaigns on reducing stress, eating the most appropriate diet, and getting consistent exercise have helped many people gain better control over their heart health. However, what happens when your occupation may cause added stress? I am talking about the actual, physiological reaction to the job. Not just the “my desk is covered in paperwork” variety (which can also cause legitimate stressors) but the adrenaline coursing, damaging kind? What if your work schedule is so bizarre that you find it incredibly difficult to exercise on a regular basis? Moreover, what if instead of an office or a cafeteria, you take your meals in the front of a cruiser? Being in law enforcement brings a whole other list of conditions that may make fighting heart disease seem impossible.
Per a news story, officers have a 25% increased risk of dying from heart disease than by criminal interactions². While some aspects of heart disease are genetic, some are related to environmental factors. Let us look at the work environment of a law officer. First, the “office” is a vehicle. So, limited space and no means to heat up any food. Some may use a cooler, but again this keeps you limited to what types of food you can bring. This leaves many officers with the easy option of stopping at a restaurant, most often fast-food. Not only does this cost more money than planning and bringing your food, but fast-food is also notoriously unhealthy. Moreover, even many ‘sit-down’ restaurants do not have a wide selection of healthy options. Greasy burgers, fries, and extra-large soft drinks become the everyday staple for many officers across the nation. Second, most law enforcement schedules operate on a rotation. Night shifts and weekends and overtime make it tough to establish and maintain a consistent exercise regimen. Third, negative habits such as smoking are too easily made a part of many officer’s daily routines. Moreover, due to work-related stress, many officers create an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and drink in excess. These factors combined, including the physical rigors of foot chases, restraining a combative suspect, poor sleep schedules and the physiological effects of adrenaline can increase the risk of heart disease.
Self-Care is Crucial
So enough of the gloom and doom! Law enforcement officers have a tough job and seem to have some cards stacked against them. However, that does not have to be the case. Creating new habits, carving out time dedicated to exercise and sleep, and making better food choices are all difficult, but necessary steps. One way departments can help their officers is by having an exercise room and equipment available at the station or precinct. Many agencies also offer discounted gym memberships through insurance and the HR department. Making sure those gyms include memberships to 24-hour access facilities is crucial. Many HR departments across the nation are also offering smoking cessation courses for employees. Finding a supportive and knowledgeable group is often the key to stopping smoking. Food planning is easier than ever with apps, Pinterest, and nutrition websites. Yes, it does take time, but it is proven to be cheaper and far healthier than stopping at the fast-food restaurants. Creating a challenge with coworkers can produce some healthy competition to lose weight and get in better shape. Talking to your family and explaining that you want to spend time with them but need as consistent sleep schedule as possible can help. Explain it is not because you are uninterested in their activities but sometimes, you just need uninterrupted sleep!
So, what are some of the things you need to be on the lookout for when it comes to heart disease? Unfortunately for many, a heart attack can be their first indication. However, by making sure you eat as healthy as possible, exercise, and keep regular checkups with your doctor, some signs can be flagged earlier. At any time if you experience chest discomfort, jaw or neck pain, severe indigestion feeling, make sure you seek immediate medical attention. For women, some signs can be different. Fatigue, back, and abdominal pain can be indications of a heart attack. Dizziness, blurred vision and headaches can be signs of high blood pressure. With any new or recurring symptom, take the time to see your doctor.
Balance, Not Perfection
Balance is essential and sometimes seems impossible to achieve. It can happen. No, it will not be perfect, and yes, schedules and needs will change. However, you must look long-term. What are your habits today going to bring you and your family in later years? Taking the time now to make changes in your everyday routine can have lasting, positive effects for you, your family, and your career.
¹Heart Disease Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/fs_heart_disease.htm
²Law Enforcement Officers More Likely to Suffer from Heart Disease. Retrieved from http://www.wcjb.com/local-news-state-news-national-news/2013/07/law-enforcement-officers-more-likely-suffer-heart
John Becker Jr. has experience as a police officer, clinician, and outreach professional. John also possesses a personal understanding of substance abuse among first responders, having overcome addiction in his own life. He is the Director of First Responder Services, for Sprout Health Group and was instrumental in developing and implementing Frontline Responder Services. John is an active member of the Montgomery County (PA) Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team and is certified by the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation (ICISF) for individual and group interventions. As a member of the Employee Assistance Professionals Association (EAPA), John is skilled in working with unions, human resource departments, internal and external EAP’s, agency counseling units, and peer support organizations. John is also a member of the Association of Traumatic Stress Specialists (ATSS) and the National Police Suicide Foundation. Additionally, John continues to provide training to agencies and organizations, throughout the country, on topics such as stress, trauma, suicide, and addiction, as they relate to first responders. He can be reached at 215-833-1572 or JohnB@SproutHealthGroup.com.