A partnership is teaming students and faculty in the Department of Health and Kinesiology with those from the Health Sciences Center to protect the health of first responders in the Bryan/College Station area.
Once a week, students in the HSC Sports Medicine Fellowship visit the Applied Exercise Physiology Lab and work with participants in the FITLIFE Program. The Fellows serve as on-site physicians to assess the first responders.
Through FITLIFE, researchers have monitored the cardiovascular health of first responders in the Bryan/College Station area since 1984 when Dr. Stephen Crouse founded the FITLIFE Exercise and Testing Program.
Dr. Crouse, director of FITLIFE, notes that the goal is twofold. First, to identify those at an increased risk for developing heart disease through assessments including blood pressure, cholesterol levels, body composition analysis, muscle strength/endurance tests, and graded exercise testing with EKG analysis. And secondly, to assess physical working capacity with a view toward verifying the physical readiness of the first responders to perform their physically demanding job duties.
Dr. Crouse recalled that one of the first individuals to go through the testing when it began in 1984 had a positive exercise stress test suggesting heart disease, and later required open-heart surgery. Since then several others have been identified as at risk or with disease, enabling them to initiate remedial therapy before debilitating occurrences of symptoms. Now, FITLIFE tests almost 600 local first responders each year.
“If there are any medical issues the first responders need to address, they can take the data from here and schedule an appointment with their doctor. We want to make sure that our first responders are healthy individuals,” explained Rachel Atchison, a master’s student in clinical exercise physiology.
“When we identify someone with an issue, they’ve been very appreciative. A lot of times the issues aren’t with their heart but other lab tests. Someone may not realize they have high cholesterol or out-of-control blood sugar until they come through our lab. It’s an eye-opener for some of them,” added Dr. Martin, Clinical Associate Professor of exercise physiology and FITLIFE program coordinator.
First responders are not the only ones benefiting from the program. Undergraduate and graduate students in the applied and clinical exercise physiology program also have the chance to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom.
“The program, with that much hands-on experience, is really a better benefit than just reading it in a textbook and having a professor lecture on that subject. They get that but we follow it up with that hands-on experience,” said Dr. Martin.
“Every semester you see something different. Occasionally, you’ll get someone that has an abnormal EKG. It’s great for me and the other students to come in, see that and get more experience working with various patients at various levels,” added Atchison.
Dr. Martin has seen firsthand the impact of their experiences with FITLIFE. He has heard from many students competing for internships who were accepted because of their training. Dr. Martin has also heard high praise from their supervisors who explained that students involved in the program jump in and help train and teach other interns from other universities who may not have had as much experience.
“This has helped me be more comfortable around other people in more of a clinical setting. I get to work on interacting with someone in a client setting. It’s given me a lot of hands-on experience that will help in my career after graduation,” explained Atchison.
Dr. Martin and his team have plans to expand services offered by FITLIFE. Due to interest expressed from the local fire and police departments, Dr. Martin is considering adding a nutritional aspect.
“They want someone to come out and show them how to cook something that’s heart healthy or even help adjust personal recipes to be healthier.”
The goal is to partner with a nutritionist to provide cooking demonstrations for each shift as well as provide recommendations for healthy fast food options for those working overnight shifts.
It is clear that the FITLIFE program meets the 3 major imperatives of Texas A&M University, providing important contributions to the Aggie teaching, research, and services missions. The impact over the years in student professional preparation, research findings presented and published, and service to the community and state through our work with first responders establishes FITLIFE as one of the premier programs of its type in Texas and the Nation.