Few professions require physical fitness like firefighting.
But what makes the firefighter’s fitness challenge even more daunting is that strenuous exercise is not always part of the daily routine, as it is for, say, a construction worker or an emergency-room nurse.
“On a day-to-day basis, you have no idea what you’re going to be doing,” said Peter Younes, a firefighter and trainer with the Henrico County Division of Fire .
Some days at the station are quiet, with just a few first-responder calls where firefighters help other emergency responders with medical crises.
“Then sometimes you’ll have a day with two fires, back to back, and you’re stretched to your physical limits,” Younes said.
That’s why fire departments urge their personnel to stay as fit as possible.
In Henrico, Younes said, firefighters are expected to exercise one hour during each shift of work, and they are encouraged to work out in their off time as well, he said.
Erica Porter, owner of Endorphasm, a gym off Hull Street Road in Chesterfield County, recently honored fallen firefighters and other emergency responders in her Sept. 11 classes. On that day, firefighters who attended Endorphasm classes were encouraged to wear their gear — suits, gas masks and all — for the workout.
Porter was not surprised to see many of them taking off the head gear partway through the class and grabbing water more than usual.
She knows personally the difficulty that the gear adds to the workout.
Porter joined her husband, a local firefighter, and some of his work colleagues when they ran the steps leading up to Libby Hill Park in Church Hill on a hot summer day.
It was 100-plus degrees, and they all wore the suits, boots and oxygen tanks, which add up to more than 50 pounds of equipment. Porter remembers feeling as if she couldn’t take another step.
“It was incredibly humbling,” said the personal trainer and pro wrestling champion who opened Endorphasm four years ago.
Chris Sheehy, a Petersburg firefighter, did a Sept. 11 interval training workout at Endorphasm wearing his work gear. He said he makes exercise a priority, even in his leisure time.
“My dad’s a firefighter, and he instilled that in me,” Sheehy said.
“Some people slack off, … but that can really come back to bite you,” he said.
Porter said firefighters going into a major fire have been known to exert more energy in the first five minutes than any professional athlete would during five minutes of a game. They are dealing with excessive heat, heavy gear, and adrenaline-pumping work.
“It’s insane to me,” Porter said.
Heart attacks are a common cause of death for firefighters, and it’s believed that the combination of extreme heat and intense physical exertion plays into that.
Younes said it’s important for firefighters, even after their rigorous initial training is completed, to keep up with strength and conditioning, and aerobic exercise.
Many local gyms offer deals for firefighters so that access to equipment is not an issue, he said.
Firefighters also are expected to watch out for one another in keeping engaged in daily fitness activities so that everyone is ready when called to a fire, Younes said. “We cultivate a culture of fitness.”