Physical fitness is incredibly important for EMS workers. It allows you to do your job efficiently and protects you, your partner, and patient from injury. Maintaining personal fitness decreases WSIB claims, increases your value as an employee, and gives you a better chance at getting a job in the first place.
It doesn’t matter how smart you are or what grades you can achieve, if you can’t physically do the job….well, you CAN”T do the job. Period. Each year, tens of thousands of Firefighters, EMTs and Paramedics are injured while responding to incidents, transporting patients and training for the job. As you will know, these tasks are often accomplished while the body’s posture is ergonomically unsound or on unstable ground. For example, fishing granny out from between the toilet and the bathtub doesn’t always allow for a proper lifting technique. While a majority of the injuries are minor, a significant number are debilitating and career-ending. Of these debilitating injuries almost 50% have to do with low back pain and a recent survey by the International Association of Fire Fighters determined that about half of all injury retirements were due to back injuries. (1)
Most accredited paramedic courses require you to pass some sort of fitness testing at various times throughout the year to move on in the course. In order to be hired on with a service, most will also require some testing either through a specified independent agency, or as part of the application process. Most paramedic fitness tests involve three areas of fitness: Cardio Fitness (how well your heart responds to exertion); Physical Strength and Flixibility (mainly designed to rule out previous back injuries that may impact your ability to work as a paramedic). (2)
Did I struggle with the fitness requirements in school? Again, you bet I did. Equipment isn’t exactly designed for the vertically challenged. Not to mention, as a woman upper body strength is not my natural ally. To compound all that, fitness tests for me have always been right up there with cold water and tomatoes- I hate them. In fact, I stopped taking Phys. Ed as soon as I could get out of it in grade 9. My saving grace is that I’ve always been outdoorsy enjoying things like cycling, hiking, canoeing, and scrambling. Oh and yoga, I love yoga.
My first lift test was scheduled about three months into the course. It involved carrying a 180lb mannequin on a stair chair up and down approximately 25 stairs twice (with a partner), lifting in both positions. I managed to accomplish this, but just barely. In fact I went home and cried (ok, bawled) because I was certain I’d never manage the final lift, a mere five months away, and 40lbs heavier. I had been hitting the gym here and there trying to do my own thing, taking some classes at Goodlife, and asking anyone who looked like they knew what they were doing for advice. Clearly it wasn’t enough and I was going to have to find a way to make some serious improvement.
So I made three important choices- diet, practice, trainer. Not everyone will have to go to the lengths I did, but you will definitely have to make fitness a priority and figure out what works for you early on if you intend to make your career in EMS a long one.
Choice One: Diet.
I’ve never been a big eater. I am a border line vegetarian only because I’m incredibly picky. I have also been quasi-obsessed with remaining a size one forever (thanks fashion channel). This mentality HAD to go, and it would not go quietly. You learn early on in Anatomy and Physiology 101 that in order for your body to build and maintain itself it needs the proper sequences of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, amino acids, etc. That means you actually have to eat those things in order for your body to make use of them. I briefly used this website>>>>http://www.my-calorie-counter.com/calorie_counter.asp long enough to realize that what little food I was eating wasn’t even meeting the basic needs of my body- aka those things that keep you alive.
If I wanted muscle mass, I needed to make a serious investment in egg, beef, chicken, and veggie farmers. I had to start eating even when I didn’t really feel hungry.I also carried around a liter of water. Being dehydrated slows down the metabolism, and the only way to prevent that from happening is to drink… a lot. I first started to notice a change in my energy levels, and eventually my muscle definition. Yes getting “bigger” made me self conscious at various times…but it was also pretty cool being able to kick some a*s. If you want muscles, you have to feed and water them.
Here is a good resource for EMS fitness and diets in general: http://www.firerescuefitness.com/
Choice Two: Practice.
Did I mention I was the only girl in my class? It was totally disheartening to see some of the other guys struggling with the lifts too, whether it was because of lack of cardio, coordination, and even strength. I thought, if they were struggling…I was screwed. However, I was lucky enough to have some really good friends (especially Kevin and Rob) that took the meaning of team effort to heart. They truly wanted each of us to succeed and spent countless hours after class PRACTICING. I did a lot of whining, shed some more tears, thought about quitting and earned countless bruises and blisters. But we also fed off each others encouragement, advice, praise, and even laughter (the good kind). A few of us took some pretty good trips and falls. I took an epic one that looked strikingly like the accident in this video>>> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eDpwb5fMPc0 But the more we practiced, the more confidence I gained. The more I learned how to gauge my partners rhythm. Someone once said that half of it is strength, and the other half technique- and it’s true.
Clearly I passed the fitness test, but the practicing didn’t stop there. I had somewhat mastered the stair chair but getting the stretcher into the ambulance was a whole new battle during placement. My preceptor, 6 foot 7″ or something, worked with me for weeks to figure out the best technique. How I wish all ambulances were equipped with hydraulics!
Here are two tricks I learned for all you other shorties out there! We discovered that if the stretcher was locked in position one notch below full height I had no problem firing it into the ambulance. However if it was raised at full height, I would literally have to arm curl the entire thing to get the wheels off the ground. C’est impossible. Also, in the field it makes the most sense for me to be at the head of the stretcher, with the taller paramedic at the bottom. Play around and find what works for you!
Choice Three: Trainer.
Luckily I’ve always been a bit of a money saver, because trainers aren’t cheap! I paid mine $60/Hr, plus a gym membership. I REALLY questioned my career choice then- should have been a personal trainer! I had to get another part time job just to pay him which was challenging as a student. But I decided it was worth it if he actually helped me pass- which I frequently reminded him about. I worked out with him three times a week for an hour. Having a trainer helped me A) actually go to the gym B) set goals and C) push out my reps.
As an EMS worker you need to have a well rounded fitness regime. I’ve seen strong guys who can lift 500lbs, not be able to make it up the stairs with 180lbs without huffing, sweating and wheezing. To supplement my strength training I also road 12km on my bicycle five days a week to school. On weekends I hiked and did yoga. It was a great mix of cardio, strength, and endurance training. Flexibility is also important because of those ergonomic variables I mentioned earlier. Yoga really helped me with my mind-muscle connection. A whole new meaning is given to lifting with your legs when you can tap into it.
I also employed my boyfriend, Will, to help. He filled one of his sturdy camping bags with 100lbs of sand. Yes that is the right amount of zeros. He would then walk with me up and down our apartment stairs and around our neighborhood. (He also carried it when I really couldn’t go any further thankfully). I’m sure one of those fancy weighted vests would have done the trick, but after hiring my trainer I was effectively broke. In between laps I would do unweighted sprints. Our neighbors probably thought we were insane, but hey, it worked!
Now a little on what to expect….
Each school/service test will be different. If you apply to multiple services you may need to do multiple tests. The trick of course is to maintain your fitness after you get the job. I have included some examples of what you might by required to do below:
A typical aspect is achieving a level 7 on a Beep test (no inhalers, no water breaks).
PET test>>> see video>>>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJoaA0nUZto
Agility test>>>see video>>>http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lAdRwoyQXJU
Winnipeg Paramedic Fitness assessment >>>see outline>>>http://umanitoba.ca/faculties/kinrec/bsal/programs/occupation/paramedicdescription.php
Vancouver JIBC fitness test>>>see pdg>>>http://www.jibc.ca/sites/default/files/health_sciences/pdf/SOHS-Physical_Fitness_Assessments-Jan2011.pdf
Hope this helps and good luck!
P.s.- for all my short sisters out there, savor the first time a firefighter looks at you and asks if you need help lifting….and you ask him to hold your BP cuff instead. But from then on work smarter, not harder- save your back! 😀