More police departments push fitness to combat the often-sedentary, high-stress lifestyle of the job.
St. Paul police officer Loue Vang did what he called a windshield-wiper exercise (where he waved his legs back and forth in a pull-up position) at his department’s gym last week. St. Paul officers are tested annually in the months of their birthdays, but the results don’t affect whether they retain their posts.
Sgt. Brad Paplham joined the Ramsey Police Department 20 years ago, fresh out of the Army and in top shape, but years of grabbing fast food on the job has packed on the pounds.
Then Ramsey Police Chief Jim Way launched a voluntary fitness program in 2011 that changed everything, presaging similar changes now underway at other metro agencies. Paplham, 45, joined the program and has lost 20 pounds and gone from a 42-inch to 34-inch waist.
“Every day I wake up and I feel better,” Paplham said. “Going up four flights of stairs, I’m not huffing and puffing.”
Although fitness is often at the core of many police activities, several factors of the job — long hours, high stress levels, patrolling in squad cars — don’t lend themselves to a healthy lifestyle. Those are some of the reasons fitness requirements vary from department to department in Minnesota, and much of the nation, or may not exist at all.
There’s little uniformity in industry standards and expectations, but some agencies are opting to up the ante themselves. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office is hosting a training session in May with leading fitness research and educational nonprofit the Cooper Institute; Lakeville and Bloomington police plan to start new fitness programs this year, and St. Paul police want to incorporate core strength training and testing for the first time.
“You go from two hours of quiet to two minutes or 30 seconds of extreme exertion, and your body needs to be able to handle that,” said Bloomington Cmdr. Vic Poyer.
St. Paul officers already are tested annually in the month of their birthday, a more stringent practice than others in the metro. Officers are not required to pass to retain their posts.
About three-quarters of the approximately 610 sworn officers pass their annual test, said Marsha Panos, St. Paul police’s fitness coordinator. In February officer Josh Lynaugh, 30, suffered a heart attack after a foot chase and died of complications a week later. The details of his health cannot be discussed because of privacy laws, but Panos said the department does provide extra care for officers with pre-existing conditions and requires an exercise stress test at a doctor’s office for officers age 40 and 45, every two years after 50 and every year after 60.
“Our police officers are much more fit than the general public,” Panos said.
However, studies from the late 1970s to 2011 have shown that officers commonly test lower in cardiovascular fitness than do civilians or certain professions, such as executives and construction workers, said Michael Harper, associate director of education and strategy leader for military and first responder programs at the Cooper Institute.
One study showed that cops between ages 21 and 35 were as fit as civilians of a similar age, while cops 36 to 52 were “significantly lower” than civilian counterparts.
“[Police work] is something that can potentially lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, because oftentimes they are placed in a high-stress situation dealing with individuals who may not be happy to see them,” said Harper, the key presenter at the May training.
Some officers who came to the profession in the 1970s and 1980s said fitness requirements have become more lax in recent decades as the country’s obesity rate increased and employers grew wary of enforcing standards for fear of litigation. Others say young recruits are more health conscious than their predecessors were, but ongoing fitness can nose dive.
“I think there’s an overall lack of physical fitness in police work,” Ramsey Chief Way said.
Way’s concern prompted him to send an officer to the Cooper Institute in 2011. That year the department started requiring new recruits to pass physical fitness tests before being hired, and those hires are now tested annually. (They don’t have to pass to retain their jobs.)
Agencies such as St. Paul and Maplewood police and the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office require recruits to pass fitness tests that include push-ups, sit-ups and a 1 ½-mile run, among other exams, before hiring them. Many agencies enforce stricter fitness requirements for such elite units as SWAT and K-9.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office and Maple Grove, Bloomington and Lakeville police are among agencies that don’t require recruits to pass a series of fitness tests to be hired. Agencies typically require a doctor’s physical exam, at least.
Bloomington and Lakeville are among several agencies that plan to attend the May training in Washington County in order to launch their own fitness programs. Lakeville Capt. Tim Knutson said it’s unclear what elements their program will adopt, but it will be voluntary, initially.
Fitness incentives in place
The League of Minnesota Cities rolled out an online wellness program in October 2012 that officers can complete for ongoing education credit required to maintain their state-issued license.
The league insures more than 90 percent of Minnesota cities (not Minneapolis or St. Paul). The online course was created after Rob Boe, the league’s public safety coordinator, began researching the cause and prevention of officer injuries.
Boe, a retired officer and sheriff’s deputy, kept bumping up against a universal message from health experts: “They would just shrug their shoulders and say improved fitness would help everything.”
In Ramsey, current officers were grandfathered into the fitness requirements but were encouraged to volunteer for a fitness program loaded with incentives. Sixteen of 22 sworn officers participate. They each contribute 30 minutes of their break time, and the city contributes another 30 minutes of paid time to work out on the job. Officers are tested twice annually in six areas and can earn an hour of paid time off for surpassing the minimum requirements.
“The overall fitness level and strength of the officers involved is phenomenal,” Way said.
Acting Maplewood Police Chief Dave Kvam said he’d like to see mandatory fitness testing for job retention. Maplewood does not test officers once they are hired.
“I liken it to firearms qualification,” Kvam said. “Most officers end their career without having been involved in a shooting, but we are required to demonstrate a reasonable degree of competence with firearms each year. … It is important to be in shape enough to reasonably perform the job duties.”
Chao Xiong • 612-270-4708