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Fit for Duty

Editor's note: This is Part 2 of a four-part blog series on first responder mental health from Rob Martin. Read Part 1 here.

Feb. 19, 2015, Kitchener, Ont. - In my first blog post on Jan. 28, I spoke of awareness, because we don’t know what we don’t know. In other words, we can’t address issues we don’t know exist.

Since then, many of us will have experienced traumatic events, some which may even have involved death. These events no doubt created stress and left a mark on us. So how do we remain intact, complete as men and women?

Let’s assess our starting points. What other stressors are we dealing with before we even start our shifts?

  • Are we facing some financial loads, relationship struggles?
  • Are we physically beat up, out of shape, or battling a health “condition”?
  • Is our nutrition being neglected?
  • Are we taking time to properly rest, recover and reboot our brains?
These are questions which, when answered honestly, can help us be more aware of our current states of mind and allow us to consciously make choices to maintain or change our practices. I’m willing to bet we can all improve in each area at least a bit or maybe a ton! The four questions above target specific areas of our lives.

The first question digs into our level of happiness. Do we feel content and grounded with a strong network of friends and family? Are we doing things that fulfill our passions? Regardless of your religious beliefs, having a sense of purpose provides us with motivation and a reason for being. But don’t freak out if you don’t know your purpose for being here. It doesn’t matter if you have a big-picture purpose in mind or small goals; it only matters that you value them and enjoy what you do. “They” or “it” will keep you centered and grounded when times get tough or when you start down the path of becoming numb.

Rescuer personalities often put aside their own happiness in order to provide someone else with the opportunity to be happy. Certainly being adaptable and able to go with the flow will help minimize stress, but be sure to maintain awareness of your own happiness so that long term you don’t suffer.

The next discussion is about physical state of our bodies. Most first responders I know have past injuries and issues with which they constantly struggle. Yet when I ask them what they are doing to help themselves I get the shoulder shrug. I know it all too well; that was me not too long ago. I wore my injuries like a badge of honour. I was even aware of the pain and other signs my body was giving me and I chose to ignore them. That is, until I had a health wake-up call.

As soon as our physical state is seriously threatened we wake up and pay attention. So let me share something with you: the harder you are on anything, the faster you wear it out. Our bodies are incredible healing machines; under the right conditions they can repair most of our ailments. Take the time to see an expert, or better yet become the expert on you. Seek info that will heal you and begin the process of practicing self-care. That doesn’t mean quitting physical activity; it means mindful activity or movement for a purpose.

The human body was designed to move through a much greater range of motion than our current lifestyles challenge it to. Solving injuries and working through limitations will provide the positive type of stress that builds a strong adaptation cycle, giving us resilience for life.

Nutrition has to be the most debated, misunderstood, and manipulated topic around. But it doesn’t have to be. I have a simplistic view.
  • Your body is made up of cells; if the cells are stressed then you’re stressed.
  • Chemicals cause cell damage (too much stress). Don’t eat chemicals.
I could write a book on the research I’ve found on this topic. But in the end you have to eat real food not food-like products. Aim for unprocessed and non-genetically modified foods, if you can. Strive to eat more clean, organic, green vegetables. Managing your stress at the cellular level will have a remarkable impact on your overall health.

My last request of you: shut off the motor once in a while! In fact, daily quiet time to just breathe and rest has been proven to rebuild gray matter in your brain. Don’t call it meditation if you don’t want to, don’t freak out if your mind struggles to settle, just set aside 10 minutes each day to sit quietly and concentrate on breathing. Navy seals use a technique called box breathing – 4x4x4x4 or 5x5x5x5; if possible, breathe through your nose. Inhale for a four count, hold for a four count, exhale for a four count, hold for a four count and so on. Yogis call this pranayama and you can modify and adjust the holds and inhale/exhale durations for different purposes. To relax, you can lengthen your exhales by a couple seconds. The goal is to count your breaths and still your body and mind, but you can’t do it wrong – unless you don’t do it.

Continue reading this series with Part 3.

Rob Martin is a captain with the Kitchener Fire Department in Ontario. He is a passionate advocate for healthy living and encourages a balanced approach where functional movement, nutrition, quiet time and fun are the fundamental building blocks for staying fit for duty. Rob is a master trainer with the Ontario Fire College, training firefighters in fire-ground survival techniques, and has attained the disaster canine search team qualification through FEMA. Rob has been trained in critical-incident stress debriefings, defusings and peer-to-peer support, and has served for more than a decade on a critical-incident stress-management team. Following the research chain for mental health led Rob to yoga, where the benefits were immediately obvious. After a couple of years of a personal practice, Rob studied to become a registered yoga teacher. Contact Rob at, find him on Facebook – Rob Martin yoga – and follow him on Twitter @fit4duty101

February 19, 2015  By Rob Martin

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