Local law enforcement officers put cuffs on poor fitness

National study seeks answers for why police life expectancy is lower

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

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We all know that being a police officer is a dangerous job, especially when they’re kicking in a drug dealer’s door or following a tracking dog into the brush after an armed suspect.

But the job looks even riskier when you look at officers’ fitness and health.

Depending on which study you cite, police officers in the U.S. tend to die six to 15 years before folks in the general population, says Dr. Kerry Kuehl, a researcher with Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

“Some studies show law enforcement officers live an average of 18 months after retirement,” said Kuehl, a well-known sports medicine physician and speaker with advanced degrees in nutrition and exercise physiology.

Kuehl wants to stop that. He is leading a $3 million, four-year study that now includes about 130 Clark County sheriff’s deputies and 80 Vancouver police officers who volunteered to participate.

The idea of the study is to find ways to improve officers’ immediate and long-term health and fitness using teams, as with the military slogan of “I’ll watch your back.”

The research is based on two groups of randomly selected officers, one with them working on their own fitness. The other group will start working in small teams.

“We think there’s power in the team,” Kuehl said. “You can help each other to achieve better health.”

But it’s not an easy thing to achieve, with all the habits and pleasures we all are faced with.

The list of things that would improve anyone’s health and fitness is a long and familiar one: start eating better, more fruits and vegetables and less fat and processed foods; stop smoking completely and stop drinking too much; exercise and lose some weight; and learn to reduce stress.

We all know the drill.

The hard part is making it happen.

Kuehl brings much of his work into the police departments.

“My research lab is their workplace.”

Police officers are considered high-risk for on-the-job injuries, too little sleep, obesity, bad cholesterol, heart problems, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, some cancers and stress -- all major enemies of health, Kuehl said.

“These are occupational athletes,” he said. “They need to go from zero to 100 mph when it’s called for.”

His study is called SHIELD for Safety & Health Improvement: Enhancing Law Enforcement Departments. It is funded by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health -- and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study also includes two law enforcement agencies in Oregon.

In Clark County, the research began with a $2,000 comprehensive “Cadillac” physical exam of each officer, free for the officers, Kuehl said. He and his co-workers want to find each officer’s risk factors.

A standout in the exams was Vancouver Police Major Crimes Detective Darren McShea, Kuehl said.

A Maximal Oxygen Uptake Treadmill EKG stress test of McShea’s heart and lungs showed that McShea is the most fit of any officer or deputy tested here.

“He runs marathons and trains all the time,” Kuehl said.

But all officers aren’t in McShea’s fitness league.

In the U.S. last year, Kuehl said, there were about 800,000 heart attacks in the general population. And 1 million deaths per year could be prevented by healthy lifestyles.

If officers undergoing the SHIELD process can learn to improve their lifestyles, they’re likely to feel better, do better at work and eventually enjoy their retirements more, he added.

What’s more, a large number of healthier police officers also will save taxpayers money in the long run, Kuehl said, with less absenteeism and overtime; fewer injury accidents at work and less illness and fewer doctor bills; better job satisfaction; and better quality of life.

“I admire and respect the law enforcement agencies,” he said. “If it works, this is going national.”

At the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, employees get no bonuses for fitness work and there are no mandatory fitness requirements except when a deputy is hired. The SHIELD study was offered to all employees, including jail custody officers, support staff and managers. Sheriff Garry Lucas, who has completed five marathons, liked the idea.

It’s pretty much the same at the Vancouver Police Department, said Lee Knottnerus, a longtime human resources analyst.

Both departments have gyms that officers can use anytime, but they aren’t required to.

Unlike Portland Police Bureau officers who received $739 bonuses for having their blood pressure checked, fingers pricked to check glucose, weight and height measured and a few other basic medical tests, none of the local employees who volunteered to be part of the research received any bonuses or other incentives from their departments or SHIELD officials.

Test results were shared with those tested, but not their employers.

Researchers will follow the local officers in the study for several more years.

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.