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Making a Fitness Program Successful

Written by Marsha Panos

You know that having fit cops is important. However, you haven’t been able to get a physical fitness program off the ground. A lot of things could be stopping you: decisions on what test battery and passing standard should be used, resistance from officers or the police union, concern over the threat or fear of litigation, concern over getting the standards implemented and then having to discipline the 25-year veteran who does exceptional work on the street but can’t pass the sit-up test, etc.

These are all issues that need to be addressed when instituting a fitness program that has mandatory fitness standards. They can delay the implementation of your program or even lead you to decide that these issues make it too difficult to implement a program. In the meantime, the health of your officers declines. Studies have shown that there is a correlation between length of time on the job and decline in fitness/health of law enforcement officers. The solution could be mandatory fitness testing, as opposed to mandatory standards.

Perhaps there are budget concerns which keep you from instituting a program. Don’t think that spending funds on fitness and health programs is a luxury you can’t afford. Numerous studies show that overweight/obese employees cost employers in days lost from work and increased insurance costs. Sadly, law enforcement officers appear to have a higher-than-average mortality rate for all causes of death, especially for deaths due to heart disease, cancer and suicide. Fitness and health promotion can make a difference in reducing their risks for these diseases. Your employees are your department’s greatest asset—the most deserving area in which to designate spending.

The St. Paul, MN Police Department’s Physical Fitness Program has been in existence for more than 25 years. The St. Paul PD has found success in a physical fitness program that consists of annual, mandatory fitness testing, but not mandatory fitness standards. Annual fitness testing has served as motivation for the officers to maintain a high level of fitness. Each year, the officers are able to compare their fitness test results to the previous years’ tests. It is often a reality check as to how the past year’s lifestyle has affected their fitness. They are then challenged to regain, maintain or improve their fitness.

As a result of the long history of making fitness a priority in this department, more than half of the department score above the 70th percentile in all of their tests, and three-quarters or more score above the 50th percentile in all of their tests (as compared to nationwide norms showing law enforcement scoring below the 50th percentile in similar fitness tests). The Physical Fitness Program comprises: annual physical fitness testing, medical screening, and fitness and health promotion.

Annual Fitness Testing

All officers must participate in annual fitness testing. The battery of tests used by the Institute of Aerobics Research was adopted, with some modifications. The tests include a body composition analysis; pushups; 1 minute timed sit-ups; a vertical jump; and either a 1.5-mile run, a 1-mile walk or a stationery bicycle test. The 60th percentile for the individual officer’s age and gender has been selected as an acceptable level of fitness for the aerobic, strength and endurance tests. The 40th percentile has been selected as acceptable for the percentage of body fat and the flexibility tests.

If officers do not reach the acceptable level, they are given an exercise prescription and are advised to retest in three months. Failure to pass a test is noted on the yearly performance evaluation for the officer. Failing can also eliminate the officer for consideration on special assignments such as K9, horse patrol, SWAT and motorcycles.

Officers are scheduled to test each year during their birth month. This equates to about 50 people receiving appointment notices each month which creates a constant “buzz” regarding the program, as someone is always lamenting his upcoming test. Individuals scoring in the 99th percentile get their names posted prominently on a bulletin board in the main headquarters gym.

Additionally, as part of the “Officer of the Year” award ceremony, awards are given to the one male and one female officer who exemplify the best of the physically fit. Being physically fit is an important part of the culture of this department and is supported from the chief on down.

Medical Screening

Officers are screened for cardiovascular risk factors on a yearly basis. Blood pressure is taken at the time of fitness testing, and officers are queried as to their present health status and whether any health issues have come up during the past year. There is a physician working closely with the fitness program who prescribed a protocol for the department to use for exercise stress testing.

The protocol requires that at ages 40, 45, 50, every two years through age 58, and then annually at age 60+, officers undergo exercise stress testing. This testing may occur more frequently after screening of the officer by the physical fitness coordinator and in consultation with the program physician.

A family history of heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, or uncontrolled blood pressure is a risk factor that may require testing outside the normal protocol. In addition, blood pressure screenings and periodic analysis of blood cholesterol levels are offered so that health concerns are identified and treated early. Such early identification of risk factors not only keeps valuable, highly trained officers on the force, but it helps save lives.

Since instituting this screening more than 25 years ago, numerous officers have been found with heart disease requiring medication, angiography, stent placement or even open heart surgery. Had these officers not undergone exercise stress testing, their heart conditions may not have been detected until they manifested themselves in a potentially serious coronary event.

Fitness-Health Promotions

Throughout the year, various activities are scheduled to promote health and fitness. Fifteen years before “The Biggest Loser” ever became a popular program, the department promoted the COPS (Change Our Physical Shape) Weight Loss Competition. It has since become an annual event as officers make their New Year’s resolutions to lose weight.

Officers and employees pay a small registration fee to participate, and the money is then used to purchase T-shirts or prizes for these events. Brown bag classes have been offered on “squad car eating” (i.e. eating on the job), women’s health issues and developing a strength training program. Step aerobics, core strengthening, spinning, kettlebells and yoga classes are offered weekly at the main headquarters gym.

Participation is also promoted in fitness events and competitions that benefit various causes, such as the “Climb for a Cure” for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Law Enforcement Torch Run for the Special Olympics. Other health/fitness challenges are designed and offered throughout the year to help motivate individuals to eat better, exercise more frequently and participate in health screenings.
Officers are allowed three hours of on-duty time per week to exercise, call loads permitting. They may utilize health clubs in the city, though most workout at one of the in-house fitness facilities while on duty. The in-house facilities are open 24 hours a day, seven days per week. The facilities are equipped with treadmills, stairclimbers, elliptical trainers, stationery bicycles, free weights, various weight training machines and televisions.

To maintain and equip the fitness facility, a relationship has been established with a large, nationally franchised health club. As the health club purchases new equipment for a facility, or as one of their facilities closes, they will call, offering to donate their equipment. They will often have the pieces refurbished so they are in tip-top condition when delivered.

The St. Paul Police Federation is the fitness program’s biggest supporter. The Federation, which is the union for St. Paul police officers, uses a portion of its dues collected annually to purchase new equipment for the gym. The police officers in St. Paul highly value the fitness program and are glad to contribute to making the facility a great place to exercise. Other equipment has been purchased by the St. Paul Police Foundation. This is a tax-exempt organization that solicits contributions from individuals, private organizations and public sources to help fund St. Paul Police programs and activities.

Other agencies in the area have fitness programs but do not have the space or money to build an in-house fitness facility. They make use of their cities’ community/recreation centers or local health clubs instead, allowing their officers to workout at these facilities on-duty. This reduces, of course, the cost of purchasing and maintaining equipment.

The smaller departments have contracted with fitness specialists to assist them with fitness testing, rather than having a full-time person assigned, or they have had officers trained to perform these duties. The Institute for Aerobics Research in Dallas is one group that has training specifically for public safety fitness programs.

Subtle advantages exist with mandatory testing. An unfit officer begrudgingly appears for testing year after year and never makes an effort to improve. However, there can be a time when getting fit begins to make sense. At that time, support can be given to help the officer begin a program. Or, for an officer who has just fallen off the track, annual testing serves as a beginning to get back on track with the program. For the St. Paul PD, having a physical fitness program has had a positive effect on each officer and on the department as well.

Marsha Panos is currently the fitness coordinator for the St. Paul, MN Police Department and has worked with the department’s fitness program since 1987. She can be reached at marsha.panos@ci.stpaul.mn.us.

Published in Law and Order, Apr 2010

Rating : 8.5


Comments

Comment on This Article

Passing Test Score Chart - error

By Marsha Panos

The test score chart on Page 66 did not print up correctly the areas tested should read: 1.5 mile run, Push-ups, 1 min. timed sit-ups Vertical Jump, Body Fat and Flexibility.

Submitted May 11 at 9:55 AM

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