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Even would-be firefighters and ambulance workers are getting fat

March 23, 2009 | 12:48 pm

Given the current state of obesity in the U.S., it shouldn't be that surprising that the ranks of the overweight are filtering into every niche — even prospective emergency responders.

Kg1ne7ncA new study found that young people applying for emergency responder jobs such as firefighters and emergency medical technicians may not be as lean and in shape as they should be. The study, published online recently in the journal Obesity, looked at health statistics of 370 people, average age 26, who applied for firefighter and ambulance service jobs in Massachusetts from 2004 to 2007.

Among the findings, 0.8% were underweight, 22.4% were normal weight, 43.8% were overweight, and 33% were obese. All normal-weight applicants were able to meet the minimum exercise requirement of 12 METS, or metabolic equivalents, a standard measurement that determines how much oxygen the body uses when it's active (moderate activity burns about three to six METS). However, the numbers went downhill from there: 7% of overweight recruits and 42% of obese recruits couldn’t make that 12 METS mark. Each unit increase of body mass index was associated with a 54% greater chance of not achieving 12 METS. Not surprisingly, higher BMI levels were also associated with higher blood pressure, poorer metabolic measures and less ability to tolerate exercise.

The results are important on a number of levels, say the researchers: Cardiovascular disease and musculoskeletal injuries are significant causes of death among emergency responders; the need among responders to be in shape is key, since others depend on them for life-saving services; and obesity can be a cause of sleep apnea, making for potentially drowzy firefighters and paramedics.

In the study, the researchers suggest, "Reducing obesity among emergency responders requires multiple approaches. In addition to promoting fitness among youth ... we propose making BMI a vital sign during emergency responders' medical examinations, especially as perception of 'average weight' is skewed higher, even among physicians." They also recommend more attention to health, fitness and diet in the workplace.

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo credit: Mark Wilson / AP