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Firefighters improve their health in new Caroline Family YMCA program

Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2014 at 3:57 pm

Firefighting class YMCABy Sarah Vogelsong
CP Reporter


The recent uptick in fitness among Ladysmith’s fire and rescue personnel is partially due to accident—two in particular.

Last April, Caroline Family YMCA community relations specialist Jan Henicheck was in a high-speed crash on I-295 when a vehicle traveling over 70 miles per hour ran into her car’s passenger side, causing it to roll over several times before coming to rest in the median. It was a second stroke of bad luck: about 15 years prior, while traveling on Route 1 near Ladysmith, Henicheck had been involved in another serious accident when a tractor-trailer jackknifed on the road.

But amidst the panic and fear of both scenes, one thing stood out to Henicheck: the first responders who stepped in to pick up the pieces.

“They’re like a lifeline,” Henicheck remembered.

Even after life returned to normal, that impression lingered, as did the desire to give back to those first responders. And later, when Henicheck came across information linking heart disease to high rates of firefighter deaths, the pieces began to come together, and the Caroline YMCA’s Fitness for Firefighters program was born.

Nationally, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council, almost half of line-of-duty firefighter fatalities each year are the result of heart attack and stroke. An online survey of more than 1,200 firefighters nationwide released by the council in 2011 found that, according to classifications by the National Institutes of Health, more than 52 percent of respondents were obese and almost 35 percent were overweight. Given that obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, hypertension, and many other serious health conditions, the NVFC concluded that “there is a clear and pressing need for weight control programs within the fire service.”

But many firefighters face hefty obstacles in improving their health. Many stations around the country, particularly those in rural or underfunded areas, lack workout facilities. In Caroline, before the arrival of the YMCA in Ladysmith Village, residents looking for a gym had limited options.

“Before this program, you pretty much were on your own,” said Robert Carlson, a volunteer member of Ladysmith Rescue with more than 52 years of experience under his belt who, prior to the opening of the YMCA, had been driving to Ashland to work out.

And even when resources are available, for many volunteer responders, time remains a pressing issue. Between a full-time job, station responsibilities, and other commitments such as family, there aren’t many hours left in the day to devote to health and fitness.

The Fitness for Firefighters program aimed to fill this need and reduce these challenges using a four-pronged approach that offered the county’s first responders a pilot program focusing on exercise, nutrition, meditation, and oral health.

The YMCA worked with county Fire and Rescue Chief Jason Loftus to get the program off the ground.

“He was very helpful and very positive about us trying this out,” said Henicheck.

For the exercise component of the program, Sara Ellis, a wellness coordinator at the Caroline YMCA, designed a program specifically geared toward the responders’ needs, focusing on areas of the body that are used in activities such as lifting and pushing and taking into account the fact that firefighters and members of the rescue squad may carry between 60 and 100 extra pounds when responding to an incident.

For the nutrition component, Kim Criley, a trained nutritionist who now owns and operates Spring Hill Farm in Woodford with her husband, volunteered her services, taking a profile of each participant and then providing them with guidance to make better eating choices.

Oral health was covered with a brief talk and by providing participants with a handout, while meditation was introduced toward the end of the program. In the future, Henicheck said that she hoped to weave this element more closely into Fitness for Firefighters, given that first responders frequently must grapple with high levels of stress.

For the responders who made it through the eight weeks, the health results, said Henicheck, were “tremendous.”

Lisa Street, a Ladysmith Rescue volunteer who has been with the squad 34 years, said that her health and flexibility have improved and that she’s gained muscle and lost body fat. Carlson said that he has lost a couple pounds and feels stronger.

Henicheck hopes to keep the program going in the future, offering it to other members of county and fire and rescue besides those at Ladysmith. During the eight weeks, Ellis collected statistics on the participants’ performance, and the YMCA will use those and other data to analyze how the program worked and to pursue grants that will allow them to keep it going in the future.

Besides the effects on the participants themselves, Henicheck said that she hoped the program would produce an overflow effect, in which the participants’ healthy choices would trickle down to their family and friends, inspiring them to make better decisions as well and improving community health more broadly.

That would be an added bonus, but at the end of the day, Fitness for Firefighters’ main focus remains the first responders.

Henicheck summed it up: “All we want out of this program is to bring these fellows to a healthy state because we appreciate what they do on a daily basis.”