For a physically demanding job like fire
fighting, fitness is a basic requirement and may protect against injury, US
researchers say. After tracking men and women in the Tucson, Arizona, fire
department for five years, the study team found fire-fighters with the highest
aerobic capacity tended to have the fewest work-related sprains, strains and
Even though the least fit fire-fighters
were in better shape than the general population, the study shows "those
that are 'less fit' in an otherwise fairly fit population of fire-fighters and
medics are still susceptible to an increased risk of injury as compared to
their 'more fit' counterparts," according to lead author Dr Gerald S.
Poplin, of the University of Virginia.
Poplin and his co-authors used aerobic
capacity – the ability of the body to use oxygen – as a gauge of fire-fighters
overall fitness levels. They got fitness information from records of the fire
fighters' annual physicals and tracked injuries in fire department reports
covering 2005 through 2009.
The Tucson fire department operates 21 fire
stations and serves 520 000 city residents. Among 799 male and female fire
service employees included in the study, 357 had at least one reported injury
during the study period. There were a total of 773 injuries – not including
strokes, heart attack, heat exhaustion and other conditions that suggest an
underlying disease or problem.
Two thirds of all work-related and exercise-related
injuries were sprains and strains. 30% of injuries led to lost time on the job.
Poplin's team followed standards from the Wellness Fitness Initiative of the
International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and the International
Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) to divide participants according to fitness level.
They used a measure of aerobic fitness, VO2
max, that represents maximum oxygen levels transported through the body during
extreme exertion in the form of millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of body
weight per minute. To put things in perspective, Poplin told Reuters Health,
for non fire-service workers, gardening may require 14ml/kg/min of aerobic
capacity, whereas professional basketball or cross-country skiing may require
more than 50ml/kg/min of aerobic capacity. In the general population of non-athletes,
the average healthy man will have a maximum capacity between about 35 and 40
and for the average healthy woman it will be about 27 to 31.
For the fire-fighters, an aerobic capacity
of less than 43 was considered "less fit" and those with a capacity
greater than 48 were considered "more fit." Overall fitness levels
among the study participants ranged from about 43.6 to 55.8, the researchers
report in the American Journal of Epidemiology. In general, the fire fighters'
risk of on-the-job injury increased as their fitness levels decreased.
The least physically fit fire-fighters were
more than twice as likely to experience injury as the fittest. The least
physically fit individuals also experienced injury sooner, within about two
years, than the most physically fit fire-fighters, who lasted about four years
In their report, Poplin's team says it's
not clear why the fittest fire-fighters were less likely to get hurt, but they
speculate that those in the top levels of a fitness spectrum may not be
as susceptible to micro traumas and may recover better from injury than their
The researchers conclude, "These
findings illustrate the importance of fitness in reducing the risk of injury in
physically demanding occupations, such as the fire service, and support the
need to provide dedicated resources for structured fitness programming and the
promotion of injury prevention strategies to people in those fields." Jim
Brinkley, director of Occupational Health and Safety for the International
Association of Fire Fighters agreed and also emphasized the importance of
teaching proper lifting and bending techniques. "Fitness without proper
movement patterns or proper movement without fitness both leave you unprepared
to meet the physical demands of the job," he told Reuters Health.
to Poplin, the study results indicate that for an individual fire-fighter,
improving aerobic capacity by 3.5 ml/kg/minute would reduce injury risk by
about 14%. However, improving physical fitness among fire-fighters will require
financial resources and specialised trainers, such as the peer fitness trainers
used in the Wellness Fitness Initiative, he said.
key aspect of the initiative, which calls for individualised wellness-fitness
programmes for active fire-fighters, is a holistic wellness approach that
addresses "medical, fitness, injury/fitness/medical rehabilitation and behavioural
health," according to the IAFF Website.
Currently only about 10 states, including
Washington, Texas, and New York, have fire departments participating in the
initiative, along with one department in Alberta, Canada. "We have this
make-believe image that fire-fighters and paramedics know how to keep
themselves in shape... but they need proper instruction just like everyone
else," Poplin said.
Noting that "a lot of fire departments
rely on other fire departments," Poplin added that volunteer fire-fighters
would also greatly benefit from such resources. Brinkley cautioned against a
"knee-jerk reaction" of setting a physical fitness standard that all fire-fighters
must adhere to, however. "Everybody's always looking for that cut
off," such as a specific number of push ups or sit ups, he said.
"There are certain levels (of physical
fitness) that are benchmarks to improve to meet the demands of the job,"
he said, but the specific benchmark varies from individual to
individual. "To say that every fire-fighter must be able to do X" is
not right, he said. "It is our position that the best way to measure
(fitness) is on an individual basis," he said.
Picture: Firefighters from Shutterstock