Physical Fitness: Tips for the Law Enforcement Executive

By Shell, Daniel E. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Physical Fitness: Tips for the Law Enforcement Executive


Shell, Daniel E., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin


Unique work demands and corresponding stress levels increasingly require that those in the law enforcement profession establish lifelong wellness habits. However, one 40-year longitudinal study from 1950 through 1990 found that, appallingly, the life expectancy of a retired male police officer in the United States was 66 years. (1)

Why do some officers succumb to life-threatening habits, such as the lack of physical activity and exercise, smoking and excessive drinking habits, and depression, that increase the risk of obesity? To counter the obesity epidemic and general lack of physical fitness, law enforcement professionals should spend as much time as necessary adequately establishing lifelong wellness routines.

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Examining the Research

Using the body mass index (BMI)--a measurement tool to determine excess body weight in relation to height--obesity classifies as a range of 30 or higher and overweight between 25 to 29.9. The BMI has become a potential indicator of hypertension, certain cancers, and diabetes. Estimates place ranges of overweight and obesity between 60 and 65 percent in the general population with approximately one-third of the general population classified as obese. (2)

Many statistics and related information exist about the health status of the general population, and several concern the law enforcement profession. In October 2003, the author administered a questionnaire to 75 law enforcement executives and other professionals. Part of the questionnaire included a BMI exercise and nutritional assessment. Based on the BMI, 80 percent of the respondents classified as overweight with approximately one-third identified in the obese category. (3)

Additionally, research has identified 53 stressors associated with police work. (4) Officers suffer more often from heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes than the general public. They have an above average risk for heart attacks, obesity, arthritis, ulcers, and cancer while also prone to bouts of depression and suicide. Further, nearly 30 percent of police officers overindulge in alcohol compared with 10 percent of the general population.

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The costs for illnesses and diseases are staggering. After adding expenses for injuries, the impact is beyond calculation. Many of the maladies to which countless law enforcement personnel succumb refer to "modifiable risk factors," which means that health conditions and related costs can be affected. For example, disease costs include heart diseases at $183 billion; cancer, $157 billion; diabetes, $100 billion; and arthritis, $65 billion. (5)

Identifying the Issues

Most entry-level law enforcement training academies employ a significant amount of hours of physical training as a key component in their curricula, yet some may lack mandated guidance or standards relative to contemporary wellness or exercise science. Further, such training sometimes does not link physical fitness with the skills needed for the job. Exercises used in academy training should be performed correctly and be relative to the health requirements or job duties of veteran officers. Unfortunately, some departments have abandoned fitness standards after being sued by employees for failing to make these crucial connections. Further, disconnects in education and training can manifest unfavorably later in law enforcement officers' careers. Performing physical activity requires a sufficient knowledge base and a commensurate level of education and skill to avoid hazardous and even deadly lifestyles to an employee's health.

Furthermore, department leaders must believe and participate in lifelong wellness for their employees to embrace the concept. Some law enforcement organizations assign an individual to implement the standards without conducting the proper research regarding the needs of their particular agency; doing so may set up the department to fail. …

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