Study aims to get cops healthier

Vancouver police officers, Clark County sheriff's deputies part of OHSU program

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

Published:

 

SHIELD Program

• The program includes free workbook, health and fitness guide, and family activity plans.

• To learn more, visit the SHIELD Program website.

Over the last year, local cops have replaced doughnuts with fruits and veggies, increased their physical activity and meditated to safeguard their health.

"Protecting those that protect us" is the motto for a four-year, $3 million health study led by Dr. Kerry Kuehl, a researcher with Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. He enlisted 130 deputies from the Clark County Sheriff's Office and 80 officers from the Vancouver Police Department for the study, along with two law enforcement agencies in Oregon, for the study.

Kuehl's team of physicians set up pop-up medical clinics at the police departments, where they performed comprehensive stress tests and fitness tests. They measured body fat, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar to determine health risks for the officers.

Deputies and police officers may have to stake out speeders in their cruisers one moment and chase after a robbery suspect in the next -- all in a 101/2-hour graveyard shift. The study looks to offset the occupational hazards that often lead to poor health.

"Law enforcement needs it more than anyone," said Kuehl, a well-known sports medicine physician and speaker with advanced degrees in nutrition and exercise physiology.

About 21 to 25 percent of people in the general population have metabolic syndrome, a combination of conditions that can include high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, diabetes, excess body fat and abnormal cholesterol levels. In law enforcement, 35 percent have metabolic syndrome, Kuehl said. Disrupted sleep patterns and hypervigilance from always being on guard, which raises the body's level of stress hormones, all contribute to these conditions.

Kuehl looked to combat these effects through seven goals for the program's participants:

• Get 30 minutes of physical activity five days a week.

• Eat seven servings of fruits and vegetables every day.

• Get at least seven hours of sleep each day.

• Maintain an ideal body weight and body mass index.

• Use stress reducing techniques daily.

• Quit tobacco use.

• Reduce heavy alcohol use.

The participants' first challenge in achieving these goals was to find time to meet.

About once a week, teams of four to six officers got together before or after work to lead their own 45-minute workshops on nutrition, fitness and stress management.

Kuehl "gameified" the experience. Officers saw how much fat was in their favorite foods by measuring out Crisco. They took quizzes, learned tactical breathing techniques and strapped on pedometers to run a virtual Hood to Coast relay.

"People don't learn by lecture, they learn by doing," Kuehl said.

Was the result a healthier, more fit police force?

Teamwork and healthy competition improved sleep behaviors, fatigue and diet among participants. Kuehl is encouraged by the results and plans to use this year to test its durability and see if cops will stick with their nutrition and fitness plans.

Critics said the program wouldn't work because cops don't have the same team mentality as other emergency responders.

Kuehl heartily disagrees.

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.

When a similar study was performed on firefighters, Kuehl found that for every dollar invested in the program, there was a $10 return. With healthier emergency responders, there's less chance of injury, fewer sick leave days and increased productivity.

With the money saved through the program, he argues, agencies could hire more officers.

Although Sheriff Garry Lucas and former police Chief Cliff Cook supported the program, their officers did not receive any incentives or bonuses for participating. They did get to be in the program free of charge.

"This isn't easy. We can't do it without the participation of law enforcement officers," Kuehl said.

Keuhl will release more data after presenting his six-month findings at the 34th annual Society of Behavioral Medicine meeting March 23 in San Francisco. With success over the next few years, Kuehl hopes to expand the program to police departments across the country.

Patty Hastings: 360-735-4513; http://twitter.com/col_cops;patty.hastings@columbian.com.