Staying healthy in the stressful world of EMS communications can be a daunting task. It sometimes seems that every facet of being a 911 dispatcher is designed to keep you comfortably stationary and working at a high efficiency. Coincidentally, the many improvements in ergonomics and layout design have unwittingly contributed to the lack of movement among emergency dispatchers, which has been identified as a leading cause of fitness deterioration. At the same time, being physically fit and well hydrated can positively contribute to our ability to perform in these environments for long hours at a time. When it comes to the health in the 911 dispatch industry, it seems we just can’t win.
Change is never easy, and neither is getting in shape. If it were, the multibillion-dollar fitness industry wouldn't exist, with its never ending guarantees and panaceas. We've all endured change within our organizations and adapted adequately. However personal change, which requires a great deal of self-honesty and commitment, is a whole lot harder to accomplish — and I’m speaking from experience.
For a long time, I had no compelling motivation to improve my health. That all changed in December 2013, at my company’s annual employee health screening. As a 34-year-old health care provider who fancied himself in fair shape, I was shocked to see the numbers that marked my blood pressure during my consultation. They simply did not fit how I felt. In my line of work, as an EMS deputy director, I told myself that a little hypertension simply goes with the territory. I decided to chalk it up to family history or having too much coffee that day. Then my cholesterol report came in. It would appear that my blood was more of a raspberry-vinaigrette consistency. While these numbers nagged at me, I was still full of enough excuses and half promises to eat better that I could've gone another year cloaked in the hope that it would get better. After my health assessment consultation, I was provided a co-pay waiver and advised to see my doctor, which I had no intention of doing.
After returning to the comm center, the bulk of the conversation focused on the health screenings and jokes about us all being a little fatter than last year, with higher blood pressures and HDL/LDL levels that required a minor in mathematics to understand. As I listened to my colleagues, it became clear that all but a few people in the center had received the same co-pay waiver. I couldn't get that out of my head. It started to feel like just switching to drinking ultra light beer wasn't going to cut it.
In general, 2013 had been a tough year for my family. We were blessed with a new baby boy, but he had a rough start in the world. He and my wife spent a combined 110 straight days in the hospital before we were finally able to bring him home. After leaving the comm center that evening, I considered the results of my health screening and the past year’s events and decided it was time to make a change. I needed to get in shape. The only problem was that I didn’t know where to start — only that I had to start.
I've never been a health nut. Looking back at my credit card statement, it would appear dutifully paying my monthly gym membership hadn't magically made me fit. Committing more time to the gym didn't make much sense for me either. Work, civic obligations, and a growing family did not allow for extra time to commute to the gym and workout. I knew I needed real change, not just a reintroduction to the nice people working at the gym’s front desk.
I found myself looking at tactics we have used in the comm center to make changes and improvements in our company. By far the two most effective tools we’ve utilized are goal-setting and progress measurements — exactly what I needed to to track my health. I found the answer in an unlikely and somewhat ironic place. There on my cell phone was the Couch-to-5k app. It seems downloading it to my phone had been just as effective as my timely gym membership payments. However, on closer inspection, this app held promise for my busy life.
I've never considered myself a runner. In fact, running was always one of my least favorite P.E. activities. Truth be told, I hadn't done anything closely resembling running since middle school. But, with this app, running did meet my metrics for change. It was accessible, allowing me to step out my front door and go. It also offered a clear path to my goal of getting healthy. Lastly, the app provided the measurements I needed to achieve that goal. In nine weeks I can run a 5k — sounds good! I also arbitrarily added running 100 miles this year to my goal list.
I got right to work. I would love to tell you all that on day one of week one running just felt right. That it was exhilarating and the nirvana I had sought all these years. But that would be a lie. Physically, it hurt — and not in that warm afterglow of a well-accomplished workout. It also hurt mentally; changing my physical self-assessment was soul-crushing.
According to the app, the first week you just have to run 60 seconds then walk for 90 seconds for five cycles. That seemed manageable. But I'm reminded of the Mike Tyson quote: "Everyone has a plan till they get hit in the mouth." Sitting here today, I'm not really sure what got me out there for day two! Maybe it was just to prove to myself that the first workout was a fluke. Following my day two workout — and after enough recovery time that I could, once again, speak in more than two-word sentences — I sat down with the app and looked at the charts, times and data provided. I sure didn't feel much better on day two, but the app tracked measurable improvements. So I kept going. Reviewing the graphs at the end of the first week and seeing my progress tracked on little green bar graphs helped me ignore the glacial pace my body was moving in the journey to getting fit.
Most importantly, I did feel better. My posture improved, and I found myself making improvements in other areas of my life, as well. Over my 9-week journey, I replaced most of my soda intake and some of my coffee intake with water and started making conscious decisions about the food I was eating. It was hard to think about pizza when I was thinking about getting ready for my evening runs! Additionally, those 40 minutes where I was moving became mine — no cell phone ringing. It turns out that most problems in life can be solved 40 minutes later without meltdown.
It’s been five months since I started my journey to a healthy life. I've run 129 miles since January and have been consistently logging between 10k and 15k per week. I have no idea what my cholesterol reads, but my blood pressure looks like it belongs to a 34-year-old again. Recently, I found myself at the back of the closet getting ready for an event, and the dry cleaning tag from the pants I wore was dated 2008. Better yet, the long hours on the job seem easier now. I find myself thinking clearer for longer, with less late-afternoon brain drain. I rarely visit the overpriced snack machine, but still eat what I want most of the time. As an added bonus, the normal bugs that float around the comm center barely seem to affect me anymore.
So how do we create healthier workplaces, while reaping the very tangible benefits of improved wellness? We have to apply the same management strategies to our health and well-being that we do to our work. Setting goals and measuring results worked for me. It could work for you, too.