EMT Health and Fitness: How to Stay Physically Strong and Mentally Sharp

David Bullard

March 06, 2024

It’s been my experience that emergency medical personnel — including Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) — tend to be much better at caring for others than for themselves. That’s generally the result of long shifts, life-or-death situations, and consistently helping people who are suffering the worst day of their lives. It’s going to take a toll. 

To compound the problem, those who work in emergency medicine often neglect their own health and fitness. They forgo exercise, reach for junk food because it’s often handier. Or they begin to seek out various substances to get through the day. These might include energy drinks during their shift so they can remain alert. Or maybe a drink or three when they’re off the clock to calm their nerves and help them sleep. 

Eventually, this unhealthy lifestyle catches up to them, negatively impacting their mood, energy, intimacy, and more.

Man in emergency medicine training checking for heartbeat withs stethoscope at NCOAE course

The multi-billion dollar a year health and fitness industry offers little in the way of relief for those in our field. And often overlooked is the overworked and stressed-out Emergency Medical Systems (EMS) shift worker.

If you’re a member of that demographic or you’re considering an EMT training and certification program like our Standard EMT, Hybrid EMT, or Wilderness EMT, don’t wait around in the hopes of that industry or even your own EMS unit will be reaching out to you. Make this your wake-up call. Now is the time to start focusing on your own health and fitness. 

Remember the lesson you’re taught when you board an airplane — put your oxygen mask on first before helping anyone seated next to you with theirs. In the same way, you need to focus on your own health first in order to be healthy and fit enough to assist others when they’re experiencing a medical emergency. And continue that health regimen so you are healthy enough to make a lasting career in emergency medicine.

In this post, I provide practical advice on how to restore and maintain your own physical and mental health and fitness over the long haul.

Manage Stress

Stress kills. We are all well aware of its negative impact on health, but what we need to realize is that a great deal of our stress is self-inflicted. After all, we’re the only ones who can control what we think and how we feel. External events can certainly trigger our thoughts and feelings, but we can refuse to allow them to become a source of stress. 

When we’re enjoying down time, we can turn off the news, avoid situations and people who trigger a stress response, engage our minds in more calming activities, listen to calming music. In other words, shift our thinking.

When you’re stressed, spend some time identifying stressors and triggers in your life and then resolve them, avoid them, or change your attitude about them. For example, if you’re in a stressful relationship, fix it or end it. If your work situation is a source of stress, address the specific issues making it stressful, look for a new job, or just commit to making the best of a difficult situation. If your finances are a mess, focus on solutions instead of on the problem.

Remember that stress is often a symptom of an underlying issue. Resolve the issue, and the stress disappears.

Stay Physically Active

Physical activity is essential for health and well-being. It gets your blood flowing and your muscles flexing, oxygenates your body, strengthens your bones, boosts your endorphins, lifts your mood, and alleviates stress and anxiety. Challenging exercise is best — a combination of aerobic and strength training. 

Walking, jogging, biking, rowing, and weightlifting are all great exercises. If you prefer something that has more fun baked into it, consider basketball, tennis, soccer, volleyball, or pickleball — anything that gets your body in motion and builds strength and endurance. 

You don’t need special equipment; a brisk 30-minute walk can be just what the doctor ordered. The fresh air will do you some good as you decompress and release the stress of a long and difficult day.

If sweating it out isn’t your way of decompressing, then focus on hobbies or developing certain skills. These can include fishing or camping, knitting, journaling, collecting, flying drones, or whatever occupies your mind, keeps you physically active, and provides a change of scenery. If you’re looking for a hobby with a more social aspect to it, join a club and share your enthusiasm with other like-minded individuals.

Don’t think of exercising as just another thing to check off on your to-do list. Find a physical activity you enjoy — whether that’s a pick-up basketball game or a brisk walk around the park — and make it part of your daily routine. Exercising often and regularly will provide you with at least one activity a day that’s directly associated with easing your stress levels.

Tip: If you’re having trouble motivating yourself or establishing an exercise routine that works well for you, consider using an exercise or wellness app such as BetterMe. This app in particular provides workouts or calisthenics you can do for as little as 25 to 30 minutes a session in the comfort of your home or even at work. BetterMe and apps like it also track progress, offer advice, and keep you motivated. Some even give you meal suggestions and portion amounts. 

Breathing Easy

“Breathe!” At some point, it seems we hear that command in every action show on Netflix, but it’s great advice. Taking deep, conscious breaths is an effective way to center yourself, still your mind, and calm your emotions. Deep breathing, according to Dr. James Hoyt, a Colorado-based pulmonologist, has been shown to slow heart rate, lower or stabilize blood pressure, and reduce stress.

Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. Then, just breathe slowly and deeply through your nose, fully exhaling after each breath. Take a few slow, deep breaths for a couple of minutes throughout your day, especially when you’re feeling stressed.

Focus on Nutrition

Finding time to fuel your body with healthy foods is a chore, especially when you’re running back-to-back calls, shift after shift. Here are a few ways to improve your diet without making it too restrictive:

  • Take a quality multi-vitamin. You’re probably getting most of the vitamins and minerals you need through your diet, but a quality multi-vitamin can help ensure that you’re getting at least your minimum recommended daily allowance of essential vitamins and minerals. You may want to double up on vitamins C and D along with zinc to support your immune response.
  • Eat mostly plant-based foods. Most of your diet should be nutrient-rich foods that are relatively high in fiber — veggies, nuts, fruits, and whole grains. If you have trouble fitting these foods into your diet, try pairing them with healthy dips like hummus, yogurt, or guacamole.
  • Don’t skip meals. No one likes a hangry medic. Keep healthy snacks on hand and eat three meals a day (never skip breakfast!)
  • Stay hydrated. Drink mostly water (pure or filtered) and enough of it — generally about 12 cups a day for women and 16 cups a day for men, depending on your activity level and environmental conditions. You can tell when you’re getting enough water by monitoring the color of your urine. If it’s clear or nearly clear, you’re getting enough fluids. If it’s yellow or orange, you’re not getting enough. 
  • Say no to sweetened beverages and go easy on fruit drinks. Nothing of nutritional value is found in soft drinks; even diet drinks are full of artificial sweeteners. Drink water or flavored water instead.
  • Pack your own meals so you don’t have to rely on fast food restaurants and gas station or convenience store “food.” If you have time to stop for fast food, you have time to prep meals at home. Packing your own food offers several advantages: It’s usually cheaper, faster, and healthier, and you have more control over the portions.
  • Don’t snack out of boredom. If you are not on a busy rotation, you may be tempted to snack to alleviate the boredom. Resist the temptation. Instead of reaching for a snack, reach for a water bottle or a hydration drink with branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
  • Don’t deprive yourself of some cravings. A candy bar, donut, or slice of cake will not do a great amount of harm. Treat yourself — in moderation. 

Sleep Well

Sleep is restorative. It is the period when your body repairs any damage, processes memories, detoxes (especially the brain), and replenishes its stores of essential nutrients. You should be getting at least six to eight hours of quality sleep per day. If you’re waking up not feeling rested or are getting tired during the day, see your doctor. 

Recommendations for EMS Agencies and Departments

Emergency Medical Services (EMS) agencies and departments should have a wellness program in place for staff. Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • A gym or excise facility that is free or offered at a reduced rate for employees.
  • Insurance programs that incentivize staff (with cash back or other rewards) to exercise or participate in wellness programs.
  • Time during shifts to exercise or participate in wellness activities.
  • Incentives for gym memberships or health facilities (with proof of attendance).
  • Incentives for annual physicals with a medical doctor.

Personalizing Your Approach to Health and Fitness

Health and fitness are not just about having a gym membership or doing CrossFit. Not  everyone has the time or inclination for that type of exercise. Fitness is about maintaining a state of well-being — both physically and mentally. How you achieve that depends heavily on your personality, what you like to do, or relieves stress at the end of a shift. It’s what makes you smile.

I have been weight training and body building for 25 years, but I realize that pumping iron isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time. It works for me because I like doing it. You need to find a physical activity that you enjoy doing, then create a system around it and make it a habit. You need to find healthy foods you love so you will eat them regularly. And you need to find a way to still your mind through an effective technique you can rely on whenever you start to feel depressed or anxious. 

I didn’t learn how to exercise or eat right while pursuing my degree in biology and exercise sport science. I had to seek answers from knowledgeable people, get in touch with myself, and experiment with nutrition and exercise to find out what would work best for me. I recommend that you take the same approach. Remember, if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t do it. 

These are just a few ideas to keep your body and mind in tip-top condition. Remember: You only get out of your body what you put into it, so give it fresh air, pure water, nutrient-rich foods, rewarding work, supportive relationships, physical activity, and mental stimulation. Do that and the rewards will be a long, healthy, happy, and fulfilling life.

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About the Author: David Bullard, EMT, is the Director of Emergency Medicine Education at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE) in Wilmington, North Carolina. His previous posts for the NCOAE Blog include “Maintaining Resilience and Mental Health in the EMS Profession” and “Spinal Immobilization or Spinal Motion Restriction: Which is Safest?

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