Why Your EMS Agency Needs a Wellness and Fitness Program

“Well, that patient was a load! Maybe if they’d do something other than sit around eating fast food, it wouldn’t be so bad!”

I cringe every time I hear this from an EMS provider, which is more often than I’d like. I bite my lip so I don’t say, “Have you looked in the mirror?” Sadly, unless things change, who do they think will be that “load” on the litter in a few years?

If you’re new to EMS, or even if you’re not, you will quickly learn providers are expected to be in the very best of health, physically, emotionally, and socially. The public does not care if you don’t feel well or are tired; when they call 9-1-1, you are their only hope and help, so you want to make sure you are healthy enough to handle that call.

I have heard many excuses:

“I work 12-, 16-, 24-hour shifts—when am I supposed to work out?”

“I need to spend time with my family.”

“I’m too tired to exercise.”

“Gyms aren’t open when I’m done with work.”

“I’m thin, I don’t need to exercise.”

If the EMS agency you work for does not have a wellness program, ask it to consider a wellness and fitness plan for its providers. Wellness plans can help employees manage stress, remain engaged, and feel cared for by their employers. They may mitigate depression, could help reduce the risk of injury while working, and even improve overall health! A simple fitness plan could include a health risk assessment upon hire and annually. The agency could supply equipment, such as free weights, cardio equipment, mats, and medicine balls and allow its crews to exercise while on duty.

Often providers may think they are too tired to exercise, but even a simple brisk walk can add energy and produce healthy benefits. Find ways to involve families, too; workouts do not have to be at a gym. Bike rides, hiking, swimming, and playing active games like tag, baseball, or throwing a Frisbee will make everyone feel better and give you invaluable family time making memories together.

If you still feel like you can only get a good workout at a gym, simply go on your day off—you owe it to yourself to stay healthy. There is a common misconception just because a person is thin, they don’t have to exercise. According to Everyday Health, not only does your heart benefit, but exercise can reduce stress and anxiety as well as increasing bone density. Plus it may help you sleep better.

Along with fitness plans, agencies should consider offering help with nutrition. Many times people look for a quick fix by following the latest diet craze, which could be harmful. Significant weight gain doesn’t happen overnight or in a few weeks, so you can’t expect to lose that weight in that time frame or maintain what you lose. Agencies could offer classes, provide healthy snacks in the vending area, have a wellness board that includes healthy recipes, encourage a healthy recipe exchange with samples, or even plan healthy potluck lunches. Some agencies sponsor weight loss and fitness challenges.

Another aspect of a wellness program should include smoking cessation. Some providers rely on tobacco to relieve stress. Companies can offer smoking-cessation support groups, reinforce the benefits of quitting, pay for medications needed to quit, or even offer a monetary incentives. According to a study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and Wharton School, employees who were financially compensated to quit were three times more successful than others who were not.

Let’s talk about stress: Dealing with the things we do every day, we are bound to find some stress in our lives. Whether it’s the last call you just cleared, your boss giving you a hassle, your coworker talking nonstop, even family who don’t understand why we aren’t home by 6:30 when our shift ended at 6. All of these could lead to physical problems like high blood pressure, stomach issues, eating disorders, mental health conditions like depression, and sleep deprivation. Since our work schedules are very different from the common 8–5 job, it is extremely important we get our rest. Agencies should also offer services that help deal with these issues as well.

As EMS providers we see the effects of poor physical fitness, bad nutrition, stress, and smoking. We should be role models to the people we serve. Being unhealthy isn’t fair to your patients, your coworkers, and your family, and it is really unfair to you. In EMS we are taught to care for ourselves first, then our crews. Isn’t it about time that happens?

Sandy Roth, EMT-P, CPT, is a paramedic with Wellspan Ephrata Community Hospital Advanced Life Support Unit in Ephrata, Pa. She is certified as a personal trainer, children’s fitness specialist, and Silver Sneakers and group exercise instructor. She teaches high-intensity interval training and Silver Sneakers classes as well as fitness classes for EMS and fire personnel specialized to the tasks they do on a daily basis.

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