We all know police work is both physically and mentally demanding. What may be less well known is that police work places officers at a particularly high risk for early deaths, heart attacks, and other health-related problems. Those risks can often be reduced through an increased focus on physical fitness and wellness. Every police executive knows just how crucial officer safety and wellness is to effective and efficient policing. Where our agencies may struggle is in making sure that message and commitment to physical health and well-being cascades down to every officer in the department, no matter his or her rank. One way that we, as police leaders, can ensure that officers pay attention to their physical fitness and wellness is by instilling policies and programs that reflect a culture committed to improving officer safety and wellness. As law enforcement executives, we must lead the charge to ensure that our officers consistently engage in practices to maintain their fitness and wellness.
Maintaining a Fit Force
It is not difficult to get new officers to engage in physical fitness. They are often in the best shape of their lives after the rigorous training drills of the police academy. However, often, that level of physical fitness dwindles over time because the expectation of peak fitness is not required throughout the rest of an officer’s career. Even if an agency requires annual physical testing, proving that officers can perform critical and essential physical job functions does not guarantee that they are at an optimal fitness level. Agencies should consider requiring annual job task simulation tests to get a more accurate picture of how well officers can perform their duties. Job task simulation tests, or agility tests, consist of various job-related physical activities on a timed course, such as climbing over a wall, crawling through a window opening, and moving a 150-pound dummy five yards. Annual job task simulation tests, in combination with various fitness tests, are a great way to ensure that officers are ready and able to perform the duties required of them.
In order for officers to be able to pass job task simulation tests, they must maintain high wellness and fitness levels. Agencies should provide programs to help officers train throughout the year, and to assist agencies in this effort, IACP recently released the Fitness Program Development Considerations guide.1 The guide provides law enforcement agencies with tips and recommendations on how to start and maintain an agency-wide fitness and wellness program. Fitness and wellness programs come in all shapes and sizes and should be customized to best fit the agency.
Engagement Methods: From the Top-Down
Once agencies have developed and implemented fitness and wellness programs, they need to get their officers involved. Programs are successful only if officers participate. Special care should be taken to make fitness and wellness programs inviting and engaging for all to encourage participation. Agencies should also consider ease of access, motivation methods, and proper support when strategizing how to engage employees. Agencies should update policies to allow on-duty time for officers to work out. Extending a lunch break to allow for a quick workout is a great way to increase on-duty time for an officer to exercise. It is the approach that I have taken here, at the La Grange Police Department, to help ensure my officers have time to get a workout in each day. After a long shift, it can be hard to motivate oneself to go work out, but allowing my fellow officers to have an extended lunch break (90 minutes) gives them time to work out and shower, while still having time to eat lunch.
Motivation is half the battle with maintaining fitness. Agency leaders can keep officers motivated to participate in the fitness and wellness programs through the proper incentives. Incentives can include days off and monetary bonuses, such as a 1.5 percent pay raise with completion of department fitness standards. At my department, we further encourage a healthy and fit force by requiring annual physical agility course completion and adding an incentive of an extra 1.5 percent raise for meeting the Cooper Standard.
Agencies should set realistic goals based on evidence-based standards, such as the standards determined by the Cooper Institute.2 Another way agencies can boost participation in programs is through proper support and encouragement. Friendly competition between coworkers can often motivate officers to get moving. Agency leadership should also get involved. Officers are much more likely to participate if they know their supervisors are participating in the program. Leadership participation can also influence the acceptance of the fitness and wellness programs overall and increase the focus on wellness throughout an agency.
Supportive agency leadership is the key to integrating fitness and wellness programs successfully into an agency. It is up to the leadership to shift the culture and update policies to reflect an agency-wide focus on officer safety and wellness. IACP has several resources to help assist police leaders and agencies, such as the Fitness Program Development Considerations guide, Eating Well on the Go fact sheets, and the Supporting Officer Safety through Family Wellness: The Effects of Sleep Deprivation infographic. All of these resources are available for download on the IACP’s Center for Officer Safety and Wellness, Health and Nutrition website.3 Please visit the center’s website for more information.
I make every effort to incorporate and support successful fitness and wellness programs and policies in my agency, and I encourage all police leaders to do the same. ♦
1IACP, Fitness Program Development Considerations, 2018.
2The Cooper Institute, Physical Fitness Assessments and Norms for Adults and Law Enforcement.
3IACP Center for Officer Safety and Wellness, “Health and Nutrition.”.