The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant disruptions in our lives. As the routines so many of us base our lives around have been altered, among the victims has been many providers’ personal fitness. We need to maintain that fitness now more than ever! This article will provide a few tips for continuing a regimen of physical activity and fitness while dealing with the pandemic.
Why should we prioritize fitness amid what in many places has turned into survival mode? Quite simply because we have to! Emergency responders’ physical and mental well-being are tremendously taxed right now, and maintaining some routine of physical fitness can go a long way toward helping both. The benefits of staying fit are no secret: Improvements in cardiovascular and respiratory health, better regulation of blood sugar, the potential to reduce or eliminate prescription medications (such as for diabetes or blood pressure), weight loss, reduction in cancer risk, and improved musculoskeletal strength are some of the better-known.
In addition, a 2019 review in the Journal of Sports and Health Science found that studies show moderate to vigorous exercise, less than 60 minutes in duration, may also play a role in immune system health.1 On top of that, the literature linked moderate-intensity exercise to a reduced incidence of upper respiratory infections and possibly decreased incidence of and mortality from influenza and pneumonia.
This is in no way to suggest that exercise is a form of prevention for COVID-19. However, as the virus does seem to greatly affect the respiratory system, this information should make us consider the potential protective effects continuing a regular fitness routine might provide us as responders.
A Better Mood
Certainly the physical benefits described above all make the emergency responder better prepared to do the job and more resilient to its physical rigors. However, it may be the mental benefits of physical activity that are most important at this time. While we’ve always known exercise seemed to improve our mood, in 2010 my friend and mentor in sports medicine, Jeremy Sibold, EdD, ATC, released findings that showed the positive mood effects of physical activity may persist longer than thought.
Sibold, an associate dean at the University of Vermont’s College of Nursing and Health Sciences, and his team found that only 20 minutes of aerobic exercise at moderate intensity resulted in improvements in mood both immediately and for up to 12 hours afterward.2 What does that mean to us? It means that if we can find 20 minutes before, during, or after a shift to be active, we have a chance to help mitigate some of the psychological toll the job can take on us. What’s even better is that it doesn’t cost us a dime—no insurance copays, no prescription costs, no self-help books, just the ability to maximize our time by “treating” ourselves while on the clock.
It’s important to distinguish between physical activity and purposeful exercise. Exercise is typically intentional, something we plan to do and have a purpose in doing. It often involves repeating the same exercises while gradually increasing resistance or intensity. Physical activity, on the other hand, is simply anything that requires energy. This can be any moving around we do throughout the day and might include walking, gardening, riding a bicycle, etc.
While it may be difficult to find time during the pandemic for consistent intentional exercise, it is easier to find ways to be physically active. Physical activity alone won’t prepare us entirely for all the demands of the job, but it will hopefully give us the boost in mood Sibold’s research found.
Ways to Keep Active
While the benefits of prioritizing fitness are clear, keeping activity as part of our routine may be more of a challenge. Fitness facilities are currently shut down. Not every fire and EMS station has a full complement of fitness equipment, and some have none. Volunteer responders may not have access to equipment at their homes.
In that context, here are some ways to keep pursuing fitness during the pandemic, even with limited or no equipment.
Work on improving mobility
Many of us in the public safety sector lack mobility. Tightness within muscle groups, decreased joint ranges of motion, and strength imbalances may all lead to alterations in body mechanics that predispose us to injury. The consequences of injury are lost workdays, lost wages, increased strain on coworkers, reduced manpower, and more. The good news is, working on mobility requires no equipment, making this a great addition to any responder’s fitness regimen right now.
Mobility can be improved by simple body weight exercises such as squatting, forward lunges, and going through the motions of job specifics, such as a firefighter moving through a room in a search position (see first image) or an EMS provider simulating lifting mechanics. Tightness of the hip flexors, hamstrings, and heel cord are commonly the culprit of dysfunctional movement patterns, so static stretches of those muscle groups are also a good idea (second image). The key with mobility exercise is to make sure you can perform the necessary motions of the job, or of more advanced exercises, completely and without pain before adding additional resistance or challenge to the activity.
Strength training improvised
Strength training can still be done without free weights and Nautilus machines. Once again, from a functional standpoint, any activity done on the job can also be used for training. In fire and EMS we do a lot of push/pull motions, rotary movements requiring core strength, lifting/carrying from various positions, and, in the fire service especially, chopping movements. Drag some hose line around an obstacle course, pull an old tire with a rope attached, beat that same old tire with your sledgehammer at home repeatedly (image No. 3), perform pushups, walk with a backpack filled with anything to add weight, or do farmer carries with anything heavy to simulate carrying equipment or patients.
Additionally, many core strengthening exercises can be done without equipment. Don’t ignore back-extension exercises—we spend a great deal of time slumped over our patients, devices, tools, etc., so placing a focus on back extensor strength is important in combating those poor body mechanics. Alternating arm/leg extensions (image No. 4) progressing to Superman (image No. 5) and glute-ham raises or glute-ham bridges are all good options for this. Another idea is to pull out a CPR manikin and perform cycles of CPR. The sky’s the limit when it comes to ideas for improvised strength training.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our normal routines, we should not allow it to disrupt our personal fitness as responders. At a time when stress and anxiety are at all-time highs for many emergency responders, maintaining a regime of physical fitness can provide some benefits to help mitigate those stressors. On top of preparing us physically to do the job, the improvement in mood brought on by moderate-intensity physical activity can be a game-changer for our psyche. Be active, get creative, stay motivated, make fitness a priority, and stay safe every time out the door!
1. Nieman D, Wentz L. The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. J Sport Health Sci, 2019; 8(3): 201–7.
2. Sibold J, Berg K. Mood enhancement persists for up to 12 hours following aerobic exercise: A pilot study. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 2010; 111(2): 1–12.
Brian Potter, MS, ATC, NREMT, completed a BS in athletic training at West Virginia Wesleyan College and an MS in health and physical education at Marshall University. After spending 15 years practicing clinical sports medicine, he now works full-time in emergency services education as a specialist with West Virginia Public Service Training. With over 20 years of experience in emergency services, Brian remains an active responder as a volunteer firefighter/EMT with the Buckhannon Fire Department in Buckhannon, W.V. Reach him at email@example.com.