Fire fighting is a job that requires extreme bouts of physical activity, often under severe conditions. It’s no surprise that the cardiovascular system of a firefighter is pushed to the limit when fighting a blaze. In fact, studies reveal that more than 50 percent of on-duty deaths are attributed to heart disease, making it the leading cause of death among firefighters.
Through the FITLIFE program at Texas A&M University, researchers are currently monitoring the cardiovascular health of more than 200 local firefighters from both Bryan and College Station Fire Departments. The goal of the program is to identify firefighters who are at an increased risk for developing heart disease, ultimately preventing heart-related fatalities in the field.
The program offers an annual cardiovascular health profile, which includes an assessment of several risk factors for heart disease including blood pressure, cholesterol levels, body composition analysis, as well as muscle strength and endurance tests.
“The very nature of firefighting as a profession is one of lengthy periods of sedentary activity separated by intense periods of very strenuous activity,” said Steve Martin, clinical assistant professor of exercise physiology and FITLIFE program coordinator. “Our goal is to determine how fit firefighters are for duty, how at risk they are for developing heart disease and how their susceptibility changes over time.”
By identifying those at risk for heart disease, the researchers hope to prevent the occurrence of cardiovascular events among firefighters. Each participant is provided with a report summarizing the results that includes feedback for major risk factors, as well as lifestyle modification recommendations.
“We are happy to say that serious health issues were identified in several of our firefighters as a result of these efforts,” said College Station Fire Chief R.B. Alley. “These firefighters were able to contact their personal physician and receive life saving treatment which allowed them to remain on the job as a firefighter.”
The program also gives undergraduates in the applied exercise physiology major a chance to apply what they've learned in the classroom, in a real world setting.
"Our students get the chance to put their skills to work in a hands-on environment, providing them with invaluable experience for their future careers," said Martin.
In light of American Heart month, held in February, Martin encourages the public to take a moment to think about their heart health.
“Taking an active role in your health and wellness is crucial,” said Martin. “American Heart month is a great time to reflect on your current diet and exercise routines and make conscious changes to become heart healthy.”
FITLIFE is a university-based exercise and physical fitness program directed by the Applied Exercise Science Laboratory at Texas A&M. The program offers cardiovascular testing and a variety of low cost exercise classes to the local community.