For police officers, the long hours, high-stress situations and shifts sitting in patrol squad cars doesn’t make for a very healthy lifestyle.

That’s why more west-metro suburban police departments are starting fitness initiatives to encourage officers to stay fit on or off the job.

From Ramsey to Lakeville, police departments across the Twin Cities have started voluntary fitness programs in recent years. In the west metro, Plymouth started a fitness initiative in 2013 and now, more than half the police department participates in it. In Bloomington, police can work out on duty and take an annual physical assessment. The same is true in Chaska, where the police department says it has led to fewer injuries on duty and sick time since starting it a few years ago.

“In 20 years, I’ve definitely seen a dramatic change for officers that stay in shape,” said Hopkins Sgt. Michael Glassberg about the police department’s fitness program. “The days of seeing very obese officers … you’re seeing less and less of it. Departments are definitely thinking progressive about making fitness a priority. In my opinion, the biggest incentive is your own health.”

In Hopkins, fitness has become a big part of the police department. Recruits are required to pass a physical test before being hired, although Glassberg said some recruits who have failed the fitness test have used it as a “wake up call” to get in shape and have returned to pass the exam. About half of Hopkins’ 28 officers use fitness equipment to work out on the job, allowed to do so with a supervisor’s permission as long as they’re available in case of a call. And about 90 percent of the department takes the voluntary annual physical assessment, Glassberg said, which tests situps, pushups and a 1½-mile run, awarding a day off to those who perform well based off national standards.

The test helps officers gauge their fitness from year to year and also motivates some officers to get in better shape throughout the year, he said, adding that the pressure from going to working at a desk to responding to a high-risk, tense call can be difficult.

“Your heart has to be able to take the rush from zero to 60,” he said.

Few fitness requirements

Fitness requirements often aren’t required as part of police officers’ jobs, though most do require a doctor’s physical exam. Elsewhere in the metro and state, fitness requirements vary from department to department, or may not exist at all.

Studies from the late 1970s to 2011 have shown that police officers commonly test lower in cardiovascular fitness than other professions, such as executives and construction workers. One study showed that police 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.

Other studies have shown that officers who stay fit use fewer sick days due to injuries on the job, Glassberg said.

That’s what has happened in Chaska, where injuries on duty and sick time usage are down. Nearly every one of the 24 officers now take part in the on duty workout program, allowing officers to workout either at the beginning or end of their 0-hour shift with supervisor’s permission. The police department also does an annual fitness test.

“I’m very proud of my officers,” Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight said. “I think they’re among the fittest in the state.”

‘Real results’

In Minnetonka, the police department has a voluntary health program where eligible officers can receive 2 percent of their base pay and police sergeants can get 1 percent of their base pay if they meet national fitness standards. More than half of the department’s 56 officers and most sergeants participate in it.

In Bloomington, a voluntary fitness program allows officers to take up to 2½ hours each week of city time in lieu of a lunch break working out in the city fitness center (keeping their police radio on hand). About half the department uses the fitness center, Deputy Chief Mike Hartley said.

“We saw some real results,” he said. “It’s really easy to put on weight in this job. It’s always been a part of the job.”

Last fall, officers started taking a physical assessment requirement every year. It’s confidential and there’s no pass/fail result, so there’s no correlation to officers’ jobs; even the chief doesn’t see the results, Hartley said. Instead, it gives officers a chance to see how they score on flexibility, pushups, situps, vertical jumps and a 1½-mile run.

“It was a way you could gauge [your fitness level] from year to year,” he said.

In Chaska, the healthy trend has spread to police department staff, who now work at standing desks, and even the city, which started a voluntary wellness program.

“Like society, the whole paradigm toward fitness has changed,” Knight said. “Who would you want to come to a call — someone who can barely get out of the car or someone who’s fit?”