Firefighters hold weight-loss contest to improve health of department

ORLANDO, Fla. – At 330 pounds, Scott Cooper acknowledges he wasn’t in the best shape last year when he joined the Polk County, Fla., Fire Department.

Cooper didn’t want fellow firefighters to worry about him while they battle blazes, wondering if he can keep pace.

“I didn’t feel I was doing the best job that I could,” he said.

Cooper, who works out of a station near Poinciana, Fla., and about two dozen fellow Polk firefighters decided to do something about their health they are holding a contest to see who can lose the most body fat.

Already, Cooper, 39, has shed 50 pounds.

While the contest is friendly participants are donating money to charity and only competing for bragging rights they know there is much more at stake.

More firefighters die from heart disease than from burns or smoke inhalation, according to a national study published this year.

Between their fast-food eating habits and lack of exercise regimes the same study found more than 70 percent of the nation’s fire departments don’t have programs to promote fitness and health some firefighters pack on the pounds throughout their careers.

Within the next year, Polk County will join a movement among the industry and require firefighters to participate in an exercise regime and undergo an annual fitness review.

“The better shape we’re in, obviously the longer and safer our people will be able to work before they get exhausted,” said Lt. Ken Jolly, a trainer with the Fire Department who recently shed 30 pounds.

“If you’re 30, 40, 50 pounds overweight, that’s just that much more to carry.”

For many years, the National Fire Protection Association has made a push to improve firefighters’ safety, and that includes physical fitness, said Mike Linkins, Polk County deputy fire chief.

“There’s been this holistic approach to the welfare of the firefighter, from stress management, nutrition, fitness,” Linkins said.

As part of its new health initiative, Polk County purchased exercise equipment for most of its stations and offered training on healthy eating habits.

While 24 of the county’s nearly 200 firefighters signed up for the friendly competition, many more staffers are making the effort to shed pounds, Battalion Chief Kevin Giliam said.

“They started exercising, working out and losing weight before the contest began,” he said. “We’re doing pretty well.”

Cooper was one of those who began to lose weight before the contest started but estimates he has shed 30 pounds during the competition.

He exercises at least three days a week and is eating healthier by cutting out sugars and sodas and by eating food low in carbohydrates.

“It’s given me a lot more energy. I can fight fires a lot longer and a lot harder,” Cooper said. “I’m able to do simple tasks a lot easier. Personally, physically and mentally, I feel wonderful. I know I will feel even better once I achieve my goal.”

Fitness programs, already required of Orange and Seminole County firefighters, are also encouraged by the International Association of Fire Fighters.

“We have to make this part of our training on an everyday basis,” said Pat Morrison, health and safety director for the IAFF.

“You need a certain amount of aerobic activity,” Morrison said. “You don’t get that just by showing up and not working out.”