Disclaimer: While not EMS-specific, the topic of obesity and physical fitness is a significant one and certainly something many women have interest in. I am not a nutritionist, or an expert in exercise physiology. I have no claim to fame when it comes to fitness. What I am is experienced in all the different ways one can try to lose weight and be unsuccessful at it. Please do not take this article as gospel or any other product/diet testimonial. It represents a journey, not a destination. Do your own research and make your own decisions accordingly.
I am not small—I come from good Celtic stock. My genetic background is tall, broad and fair-skinned, with red hair. Do you know what that makes me? A tall, red-headed broad. I have been various levels of fit throughout my life, but small (and a career as a thoroughbred jockey) has eluded me from about age 14. I would say that at my strongest I could run/bike for miles, could swing hay bales with ease and could leg-press 550 pounds. When I entered EMS I was not small but I was solid, curved and fit enough to do my job.
Twenty years, two kids and a bunch of bad habits later I am still not small…but I am also certainly not as fit as I should be, and have now spent years struggling with an unhealthy amount of excess weight. I could blame a lot of things for it, but ultimately my choices are my own.
There is no big mystery to how it happened; staying healthy with an active EMS career requires discipline and effort. The media’s version of an EMS provider comes to us from shows like “Third Watch”—trim, physically fit, in uniforms tailored to show off our better attributes. However, the same media tool can be used to view us as we more likely are; very often we are overweight to outright obese, and even if we are not overweight the large majority of us are probably not at the peak of physical fitness. In a field that has everything to do with activity and health, how does it happen that very often we are our own worst role models? Let’s look at some of the most common factors which double beautifully as excuses (I know, I use them all the time).
Regardless of your role in the field, it is almost guaranteed that your work schedule is far from “regular.” EMS is a 24/7 business and trying to fit it into a 9 to 5 model is often an abysmal failure. Whether it is shifts of 12, 24, 10/14 hours, or any combination thereof, it will usually span both day and night (both if it rotates) and it has a broad spectrum of effects on how we carry out our daily lives. Double or triple that if you have more than one job, which many of us do. What do we get for our ability to be so flexible with our time? Sleep disorders, chronic fatigue, a depressed immune system and horrible eating habits. Go team!
Schedule has a really significant impact on diet for a number of reasons, most of which don’t need to be outlined. For the night people your choices are slim and those that are open, while very often delicious, are far from the healthiest choices out there. For the day people, while your available variety (healthy and not) is greatly increased, very often the increase in call volume—and more simply the locations of eateries—get in the way of obtaining decent food. So if you go for convenient, I don’t blame you; however, in this day and age convenient is rarely synonymous with healthy.
The great exacerbator, we claim to thrive on it and in many ways most of us do. We function under stressful circumstances that a large majority of people outside of the field feel they could never cope with. That does not mean it does not take its toll along the way. One thing to remember when people talk about stress is that, in and of itself, it’s not a negative term but a neutral one. Webster’s defines stress as “a physical, chemical or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation.” Sometimes that tension is for our own good—increased vigilance, faster responses and the ability to do and process any number of critical items at once. The rest of the time it goes back to the same things we all worry about—performance, schedule, money, relationships…basically just life in general (compounded by life in EMS).