A Lesson in Gym Etiquette

You’ve likely read articles about this subject before now, but I feel the need to write another one as the others do not seem to make a difference in the gym – at least not the gyms in which I have or currently work.

  1. Be polite with your music. This point should have sub-points, but I won’t do that to you. My biggest pet peeve when I am working the desk is when I greet someone or bid them to have a good rest of their day, and they don’t hear me because their headphones are already on or earbuds are in, music blasting. I understand people want to have music while they work out. I put earbuds in when I do aerobic training (aka cardio). However. Be polite (and safe!). Don’t put your music on until you are actually on the floor to work out, and turn it off when you leave the floor. Even when the music is on, it should not be blasting loud enough for people around you to hear!
  2. Put your weights away. Often I will put out a sign with something like, “If you are strong enough to use the weights, you’re likely strong enough to put them away” or “Fun Fact: putting your weights away will help you build more muscle.” I should not have to do such things. I understand putting away a stray plate or two, but when I arrive to do a work-out or make my rounds during my shift, I should not find a stack of five or six 45# plates. . .especially right next to their rack! Furthermore, when you put them away, try to put them in their proper spot! If the racks or weight trees are labelled, don’t be that person who puts a 2.5# plate where the 45# plate goes. Believe it or not, the branches or racks are spaced out so that all of the plates fit properly.
  3. Wipe down the equipment. Whether it is a cardio machine (treadmill, bike, stepmill) or a resistance machine (leg press, leg extensions, shoulder press), if you use the equipment, wipe it down with the appropriate cleaner provided. It’s like when you’re out hiking or camping – you leave the area better than when you arrived. Same principle here. Leave the station cleaner than when you arrived to use it. Now, on a more sanitary note, it’s usually a good idea to wipe down the equipment before you use it as well. You don’t know what the previous person was wearing, where they had been, if they have been sick, or if they wiped the equipment down after using it. Every shift, without fail, I find equipment – especially the cardio equipment – with dried sweat all over it! I don’t mind wiping down equipment to make them look nice, but actually having to scrub the equipment of someone else’s sweat is a whole other matter.
  4. If you drop something, pick it up. Littering is taught to us from a young age to be a bad thing, yet you would not believe, or you might, the amount of paper towels and gum wrappers or cough drop wrappers I find on the floor throughout the shift. Our teachers did not allow this in school. I know offices do not allow their employees to litter the work-place in such a manner. Why is it suddenly ok to just leave garbage around a gym?
  5. Do not take someone’s machine or weights while they may still be in use. Quite often, I see guys who are super-setting (doing 2 or more movements in a row with no break between sets). As they leave one cable machine to do a lift or a body-weight exercise, someone else comes along and decides to take the cable attachment they were using. . .even though there were plenty of other attachments which would suit their purpose. Now the first guy is stuck having to stop his super-sets in order to find an attachment to match their original movement. Another thing I see is someone lifting heavy – let’s say a power-lifter doing a bench press – who moves around, stretching, resting appropriately between sets only to return to their bench or turn back around and find their weights are put away or have been taken by another person. That’s just rude and incredibly frustrating for someone who is training hard! Now, if the weights or cables or whatever piece of equipment has been left unattended or unused for a while (like 5 or more minutes), it’s fair game and someone just likely did not follow Etiquette Point 2.
  6. Do not get distracted between sets. The main gym where I work has 13 TVs set around the fitness room. Between those TVs and everyone on their phone, people have a tendency to hog a machine or piece of equipment (squat racks, deadlift platforms, certain bars. . .) for much longer than they need because they get distracted watching the game or checking Facebook. Every so often, between sets when I’m lifting heavy, I will check SnapChat or answer a text in the 1-2 minute break I take between sets. I also have a timer set on my phone to let me know when my break is over, and it’s time to lift again. However, I wanted to deadlift one night, and this guy took over 40 minutes on the deadlift platform (we only had one at the time). He was not maxing out. He simply kept playing on Facebook and walking around talking between his 3 sets of 12. Forty minutes for 3 x 12. To say I was annoyed is an understatement. Believe me, he heard about it the next time I saw him! If you’re going to be using a station for awhile for whatever reason, and you notice someone else kind of pacing or wanting to use the equipment you’re on, either be nice and let them get their sets in quickly or offer to let them rotate in between your sets. The guy who took over 40 minutes does lift about twice as much as me, but all we would have had to do is take off 2 plates from each side for me to lift while he was resting and put them back on for him to lift while I was resting.

There are several more points I could list, but following these 6 points will go a long way in bettering the gym experience for yourself and other members! 

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When Starting the Gym

Thursday night, I arrived to work my shift at the gym desk and found a woman firing a million questions at my male co-worker. He, quite gracefully, passed her off to me in order for him to leave. After only 30 seconds of talking with this woman, I realized how incredibly nervous and out-of-place she felt. She mentioned that she has never stepped foot in a gym before, has never worked out, and picked this gym because she didn’t think she would see anyone she knew. After she left, I started making a new list in my head for people who feel out of place in a gym but join to better their health.

  1. Don’t worry about what everyone else is wearing; wear what is comfortable for you. One of the things this woman kept worrying about and mentioning was that she did not know what she would wear. She kept pointing out the younger girls who wear the super tight tops and leggings. I told her that I am comfortable working out in leggings or tight capris, but I prefer to wear looser tops. Wear what makes you comfortable. Keep in mind the dress-code for the gym (example: my gym does not allow girls to be walking around in just their sports bras and barely-there shorts or guys to be shirtless), but wear what works for you! I recommended going to Wal-Mart and getting a pair of sweatpants and a comfortable shirt to start.
  2. You don’t need to spend a fortune. Just because some people have those expensive headphones or earbuds, or they’re wearing different shoes for different work-outs does not mean that you need to worry about spending a lot of money for accessories. Focus on the basics: your gym membership, at least one good pair of shoes, a water bottle, maybe a trainer. If you want earbuds, every gas station I have ever been to keeps them on a shelf or rack somewhere for relatively low prices. Stores keep lower price options available as well. A good water bottle is important because you do want to stay hydrated. It’s more economical in the long run to buy a good, reusable water bottle rather than buying a new one every single time you go to exercise. Also, those bottles you find in the cooler next to the register or in the coolers are made up of all sorts of chemicals that leak into the water, poisoning you.
  3. Trainers are there to help you. The conversation I walked into was the woman wondering if there were any evening classes offered on how to use the different machines. Unfortunately, we only offer them in the morning, so I recommended she talk to the trainers we have contracted. I do not know all their prices or what a consult includes, but it wouldn’t hurt to contact them. She was insistent that she was not in a place physically where she would feel comfortable working with a trainer. There are some trainers who yes, they only work with clients who are already at a certain level of fitness, but most of us love working with clients who are in that beginning stage. I enjoy working with clients who have never had a trainer before because it means there likely are fewer bad habits to break!
  4. It’s ok to be nervous. You are taking a big step. Everyone gets a bit nervous when they are starting something new or restarting something they may not have done for a few years. Take a deep breath and get going. Nobody will notice that you’re new unless you want them to notice. I’ve been in gyms my whole life; I’ve been heavy lifting for the last six years. . .and I felt quite embarrassed when I dropped the bar from a power clean earlier this year. It wasn’t that it was too heavy; the bar spun – literally – right out of my hands which I was not expecting. I grumbled to myself for a bit, switched out the bars, and kept going. Only a few of the guys around noticed what had happened, and they were more concerned that I dropped it because I got hurt. I have seen those with more experience than I make mistakes. It happens.

Most of us in the fitness profession have had uncomfortable moments in our bodies and/or in the gym. I actually wrote a short article about this recently (Short and Sweet). A co-worker of mine, after the woman left, made the comment that she was going to be a high maintenance member. I said no, I did not get that feel at all. I felt she was just nervous and was wanting to get all the information she could to help boost her confidence. For this reason, before she left, I gave her not only the e-mails of the women who run the classes on how to use the machines to see if they had other times available, I also gave her my name and told her that if I am working or even just working-out on the floor, let me know if she had a question about any of the machines or movements. I am not contracted at this facility as a trainer, but I can help new members and am willing to help anyone who is trying to make a positive change in their life!

Saving Money, Saving the Environment, and Saving My Health

This winter, I was looking for new ideas for my flower garden. I searched for traditional German style gardens and came across the hugelkultur. The article I was reading was using it for a vegetable garden, but I did more research and found it would work on flowers too!

While still debating on this project, I attended a lecture featuring Dr. Mark Hyman from the Cleveland Clinic. He had started talking about how changing the way we grow food is actually the best way we can slow or stop climate change. Being from a farm community, I was automatically getting my defenses up. He started talking about tilling causing soil erosion and all the negative effects of that. It was absolutely fascinating, but it still left the thought in my head of: how are my family members and neighbors going to make a living if we give up tilling? 

I thought of this hugelkultur, but it’s not practical for farmers with hundreds of acres to plant. Dr. Hyman brought up no-till farming, which, again, is fascinating! I mentioned it to my dad who informed me that there is a farmer a couple roads over from us who has always practiced and benefited from no-till farming. It not only is better for the environment, no-till farming leads to a better harvest. All of this together made my decision for me: I would not be looking to either get my own rototiller or fix my parents. Making a hugelkultur was definitely in my future. 

There seemed to be a couple different ways the easiest of which would be piling up fallen trees and covering them completely with dirt. I don’t currently have a lot of fallen trees or fill dirt at my disposal, so that option was out. One of the more popular options was to dig about 1-2 feet down, throw in the trees, cover the trees with the top layer of sod (grass side down), and then finish off with the rest of the soil you dug out of the ground. I went with this option.

 

In the pictures above, this was my step 1. On the left, I had my modern-traditional garden from last year which I extended a little bit. On the right, the top layer is completely pulled off!

20180509_173023.jpgThere’s my hole, ready for the trees!

20180509_174746Like I said, I didn’t really have fallen trees laying around, so I used branches and limbs that had fallen off this winter and last spring. Some of them had actually already started to decompose or break down, so that will be perfect for this! The articles said that traditionally, it wasn’t uncommon to see these standing 6-7 feet tall. Mine is clearly not that tall. For starters, the family backhoe is not quite working, and that’s really the only way I would be able to get the dirt on top if it were that tall. Also, I only dug out about 1ft deep, so I didn’t have enough dirt to pile the branches too tall this year.

20180509_180046.jpgI put the top layer I had first pulled off, grass side down, to fill in some of the bigger spaces where dirt would just fall through the branches. I did find a few other bigger pieces to fill in the obvious gaps still in this picture.

I somehow forgot to get a picture before I planted with all the dirt piled on. It’s not the prettiest, mostly due to the dirt around the edges on the walking area which got packed down in a storm. However! I got my veggie seeds in today. Planted my herbs in pots to get started before moving them to the garden area. I watered lightly, just to really get them started. . .and it’s supposed to rain this weekend.

So! There is my starting attempt! I will post updates throughout the summer of how my veggies grow! I will also be using my dad’s backhoe for the flower garden. (Well, he’ll be using it put in my flower garden. . .boys and their toys!)

Short and Sweet

I was asked to try out a new gym for a week; of course, I said yes. Now, I have been working out 4-5 days per week on average for the last year. Before that, it was 3ish days per week for several years – including CrossFit! Before that…I was a high school athlete. I tell you this to help illustrate that I am not new to gyms.

I sat out in my truck for about 10 minutes working up the courage to go into this new gym where I did not know anyone. I was by myself.

When I finally went inside, the trainer who was at the desk and greeted me was quite nice! The general manager who I had briefly met last week was there and friendly. Members there knew each other by name, same as the rec center where I currently exercise. I had a great work-out; the equipment is beautiful!

The whole time I was working out, though, I was thinking about how nervous I had been sitting out in my truck. I spend a great deal of my time in gyms, and I was nervous about a new one! When I’m working, I do my absolute best to help people feel comfortable and at ease in the gym. I am never intentionally rude or unwelcoming.  I thought back to a few people who have come in talking about nervous they were coming into a new gym or how uncomfortable they were there. I started re-writing future responses in between sets. Instead of chuckling and saying something along the lines of, “oh, there’s nothing to be nervous about; it’s just a gym!” I’ll start asking (without chuckling) why they were nervous? Was it because this was a new place? It’s been awhile since they were in a gym? And I’ll go from there.

To try to summarize what I am trying to say in this post: everyone reacts differently to going to new places – the struggle of going to a gym for one person could be the equivalent of singing in church or heading out of country for others. Instead of treating their struggle as if it’s nothing because it is not a challenge for you, try to understand why they feel nervous. Even if you don’t know what to say, you can still offer support. Give them a tour of the place or work out near them so they have a friendly face close.

Women in EMS: Part 2

In EMT-basic class, we are told it is expected of us to be able to lift 150 pounds. At the private transport for which I worked full-time for 3.5 years, a crew of two automatically received a lift assist if the patient weighed 300 pounds or more. Considering most cots weight 60+ pounds, two EMT need to be able to safely lift at least 360#.

Are you up to the challenge? Are you able to fulfill this job requirement?

One night, my partner had traded shifts with another female EMT. She and I are similar build and height. We both are strong. Both of us, with our partners, typically refused lift assists for anything under 350#. That night, we got a page to transfer a male weighing 280#. That should have been easy for us, but when we got there, our heads went back to look up at him. We both realized, without even saying anything, he weighed probably weighed over 300#. While he finished a phone call, my partner and I went to get report from the nurse. The nurse agreed with us, the patient was probably around 320-350#. Before returning to load the patient on the cot, my partner and I agreed to lift in 2 stages to be safe. The patient was able to walk to the cot; we strapped him on using seatbelts. I took the feet. As soon as we began to lift, even just that first stage lift, with proper lifting mechanics, we realized this patient was heavier than our estimated 350#. I automatically tightened my core even more to prevent back injury…or a hernia. The ER medic came to ask if we needed help, but we had already completed the 2nd stage of our lift. We were fairly confident we could safely load the patient and cot into the squad without assistance.

Outside, my hands were in the normal lifting positions. My partner put her left hand under my right arm to grasp the middle of the bottom bar; her right hand was next to mine. We lifted, and she immediately released her hold in order to move to the side and lift the legs while I maintained the lift. Once the legs were up, she remained the side to keep the cot and patient steady as I walked forward. The patient was loaded without problem. He told us he had not been sure if two ladies would be able to lift him without help, but he was impressed.

She climbed in the back of the squad with him while I walked around to the driver’s seat. As I drove, I listened to her run through the usual questions. When she got to his weight, his answer: well, last time I weighed myself, I was about 380, but I think I’ve put on some weight since then. . .
She was the pro who didn’t appear to even bat an eye as she kept asking her questions. I in the front seat, however, was trying not to choke.

We unloaded at the hospital with no problem (unloading is always easier than loading) and returned to our squad. She drove; I called dispatch. They were informed that I understood the 2 and 3 are close together on the keyboard, so the weight report could have been an honest mistake. However, if I found out the weight was changed to avoid sending or at least offering us a lift assist due to the boards already being backed up, I would be filing a formal complaint as we and the patient could have been seriously injured if we had been a lesser-experienced crew or a crew with poor lifting technique.

EMS is a physically taxing field. I was actually injured due to a negligent partner with awful lifting form – he actually informed me that the proper way to lift is with your back, not your legs! Unbelievable. . .

Start totaling up all the weight you move on every shift. You move the patient from the scene to the cot; you lift the cot to move it to the vehicle. You lift the cot into the vehicle. If it’s a helicopter into which you’re loading the patient, now you just have to lift the cot back into your squad. If you’re transporting the patient yourself, you have to unload the patient and cot. You may have to lower the cot to move safely. Now you have to move the patient into the receiving bed and reload the cot back into your squad.

That is for a single patient. Do not forget you also have the jump bag, the monitor, any other you may need like a backboard.

We have to be physically as well as mentally strong. What goes into that?

Strength
I worked with several guys and girls who felt that our job was exercise enough. While it is true that you will gain or at least maintain a certain level of strength from moving several thousand pounds of weight with instability factored in (patients have a tendency to wiggle on the cot) every shift, it is also true that you are working the same muscles every shift. What happens if you get into a new situation?
We are all used to picking patients up off the floor. We’ve all had to carry patients up and down stairs, but when was the last time you had to carry a patient up a circular staircase? I’ve had to do that. This was back when I was one who thought that work alone was a good enough work-out. Muscles I forgot I had woke up screaming the next day.
I am a fan of free weights. Among their benefits is the fact that if you have any old injuries or other reasons that your joints may not move the way as another person, you can move the weights in a way that is best for you. This is NOT referring to poor form and technique. Someone who has knee problems may need to adjust their deadlift to a sumo stance to decrease risk of injury that would come with poor form. I use deadlifts as an example not simply because they are my favorite, but also because I feel as though they are one of the most practical exercises an EMT can do.
While I strive to avoid machines, mainly for the reason that they increase risk of injury due to forcing your movements along a specific track, I realize that for someone, machines can help build confidence. They can, if used correctly, increase strength as well.
Bodyweight exercises. This category has the potential to be some of the most challenging exercises you can do! Think of burpees. Planks. Squat jumps. I use these exercises and others to work on core strength which leads to a decreased fall risk for all ages.

Flexibility and Mobility
Regardless of what kind of training you choose, flexibility and mobility training is a must!
Think of the body-builders you see or even the non-competing guys at the gym who just want to have as many muscles as possible. Do you think they can touch their toes keeping their knees straight? What about being able to crouch on the ground to soothe a patient who fell an hour ago and was just found? Can they reach up to get a ladder off a truck? Having muscles is good and takes a lot of hard work, but being able to use those muscles is even better. It’s still going to take some work, but focus and commitment will pay off in the long run.
The nice thing about this category of training is the ability to do the basics, which are always needed, without any equipment. For example, neck circles. Unless you have been told by a joint specialist (orthopedic surgeons, chiropractors) that you are not to move you neck in full range of motion (you have had bones fused together), slowly rolling your neck around is a great way to loosen tight muscles. I usually start with my chin down towards my chest then rolls as if trying to touch my ear to my shoulder (without shrugging! Keep your shoulders relaxed.). Let it continue to roll back so your head is dropped back with your chin in the air; roll to the other shoulder and back to the starting position. Start doing 10 of these one direction then switch directions. After a week or two, up the number to 15 each way. After about 5-6 weeks, you should be able to do 30 times around each direction and still feel a good stretch! Note how much your range of motion has increased throughout this time period too. You may have also noticed a decrease in headaches and an increase in shoulder movement.
Do you remember studying chain reactions back in school? Think about it this way: if your muscles around the neck are tight, they’re pulling the muscles around your shoulders and thoracic vertebrae tight as well. If the muscles in the thoracic region are tight, they’re going to be affecting movement in the lumbar and pelvic region. Have you noticed this before? Maybe you notice that when your lower back is tight, your hips and knees feel off.
When you’re getting ready to work-out, you want to get in a good, moving warm-up to help prevent injury. High knees, bum kicks, scapular retractions, and even burpees are great ways to warm up your muscles and get your joints ready to move. (They will also help better your lifts, but that’s a whole other article.) The end of the work-out is the time for the stretches most people think about when they hear the word flexibility. This is the time for the static (not moving) toe touches, butterflies, hand over your head, and the list continues. This allows your muscles to basically cool down and can eliminate soreness later – especially if you do these stretches again before you go to bed for the night where immobility typically leads to soreness in the morning.

Let’s go back to that second question I asked: are you able to fulfill this job requirement?

My partner once arranged for another girl to cover his shift with me. He thought I would appreciate not being the only girl on the road for a change. The conversation was fine. However. I told dispatch at the end of that shift that I would not be working with her again for the foreseeable future. Why? Her skills were solid; she was very knowledgeable about our field.
She called for a lift assist every time the patient weighed over 200 pounds. Running squad in an urban area – in any area – meant that we were essentially useless that night. Dispatch couldn’t keep sending two trucks to every call. They had us stage between a couple of our more frequent nursing homes…just in case. I was quite annoyed. I invited her to work out with me, but she said oh no, she felt like she was getting stronger at this job. I let it drop, not wanting to come off as a know-it-all or hurt her feelings as she was quite petite.

Shortly after I left the private company, my partner did as well. He went to a new private transport company and was assigned another female partner. At one point, someone – possibly even me – posted something on his Facebook page about lifting heavy patients. Can you imagine how unhappy and, quite frankly, disgusted I was when I read her comment about “no, that’s why I like having a male partner. They can do the heavy lifting or call a lift assist.”
I fired off a message to my partner to please tell me she was joking. He just responded with “I miss you.”

When you are at work, in our field, your risk factors become everyone else’s risk factors.

If you are at risk of injury because you don’t know how to lift properly, your partner is at risk of injury. If you slip when moving a patient downstairs because of poor balance, your partner might end up being your next patient.

Work in Progress

I finished a hard, new work-out the other day. Feeling quite proud of myself, I did what everyone in the gym does at least once: I snapped a selfie for Instagram. I checked in at the gym, and, out of curiousity, clicked to see what other photos and videos had been posted for that gym. It took maybe 30 seconds for me to regret that decision.

In my opinion, if this were the “which one doesn’t belong” game, I would be the one to stick out like a sore thumb

That location check-in was filled with what I call, the pretty people. They are the ones who look like they stepped out of a fitness ad. They are the ones that employers want to represent them at health fairs or other vendor fairs because a lot of people are willing to spend money to look like them. I am not one of the pretty people. I am one of the worker bees who works hard and keeps things running smoothly. . .in the background.

I immediately took the check-in off my picture and spent my entire drive home kicking myself for doing so. Why?

I was still proud of myself for that work-out. I know that, from an appearance stand-point, I am not yet where I want to be. I also know that it takes a lot of hard work and time to get to that point. I can look back to where I was even before Christmas and see evidence of my hard work. I also remembered that changes in my appearance are bonus side effect of my training. I work out to reach and maintain my goal of being an asset, not a liability, on the fire ground. I want my men to be able to depend on me to do any assignment I am given. I want to be able to get any of my men and patients out of any potential dangerous scenarios. I have health concerns I would like to reverse and prevent returning. I want to be a good example for anyone who looks up to me.

When I went back to that Instagram check-in, I realized that the majority of those pretty people are professional, competing body builders. They were practicing their poses. They were trying to look as perfect as humanly possible. (There’s also the possibility that they are not competing in the natural shows. . .)

Ladies and Gentlemen, I am a professional in this field, and I struggle with self-confidence that comes with comparing myself to others. The thing to remember is reaching your highest potential for health and fitness is not an overnight change or quick fix. It is a process. Everyone is in a different place in that process based on from where they started and towards which goals they are striving.

Be proud of the progress you have made. Before and progress photos are a great tool that do not require any fancy or expensive equipment. Stay off the scale! I had clients who wanted to weigh-in every single week. I managed to convince them to go every other week as a compromise with my preferred once every month or two. Do not compare yourself to everyone else you see in the gym. Be encouraging to those you see struggling.

This is a selfie after a hard work-out today. I crushed the work-out, but I was exhausted. I was not trying to look cute or tough or anything in this photo. I could not even actually manage the proud look to reflect what I was feeling inside. I wanted this picture as a reminder for later days when I am struggling. Snapchat-1177963226

Women in EMS: Part 1

Disclaimer: This is not a political article nor will I allow it to become one through the comments. It is simple facts and observations about the women who work in EMS and how our health and fitness come into play in this field.

 

I tried to come up with a catchy title for this article but realized one was not necessary.

Those of us in EMS are often called calloused, heartless, direct, brutally honest, no-nonsense, and the list continues by those who are not in EMS. This applies to both men and women. My own sister was the first to call me heartless after I came home frustrated by yet another OD. I approached it from a more logical stand-point, and she said just stared in shock and said that not even our parents – both in the emergency medical field longer than either of us have been alive – had sounded so heartless or disgusted after a shift. I told her to ask them about the time they got beat up by a grieving and worried family member – we both knew it happened – of that OD patient…who was potentially going to be the second death in that family in less than two weeks. My heart was breaking for that family member. I wasn’t mad when I looked in the mirror and realized that, unless I wanted to explain the developing bruises around my shoulder, I wasn’t going to be wearing tank tops for a week or two. To bring to mind everyone’s favorite Tin Man, I knew I wasn’t heartless because, instead of upset about those bruises, my heart was breaking for that family.

We go through a LOT in EMS. We have to be strong in every aspect of our lives to be in EMS without burning out.

Starting with mental health which ties in with emotional health, let’s look at the effects of stress on our body. The story above was honestly not stressful for me. It was frustrating, but I did not lose any sleep over it. I honestly probably wouldn’t have even mentioned it to my sister (HIPAA compliant of course) if she hadn’t seen the bruise and jokingly asked what I ran into or fell off of now. That incident was an acute stress for me – something that happened, got adrenaline going as my brain processed what was happening and what may need to happen if the situation changed. A chronic stress for me that did have a negative impact on my health was an awful partner and poor leaders who wouldn’t do their job regarding that partner for one month short of a year.

Breaking stress into acute vs chronic is simpler for me to explain than the more detailed categories mental health professionals have created for further clarification. (Here is an article that goes into a little more detail about those in-depth categories.) Acute stress can have a negative impact on one’s health depending on pre-existing conditions. My mother, for example, has a cardiac condition where acute stress – good and bad – could trigger a bad cardiac event. Chronic stress can lead to a whole plethora of problems, not the least of which is poor sleep.

Our bodies use sleep to reset. The brain uses the time we are sleeping to basically organize itself and reset for the next day. Neurotransmitters that have built up over the day due to different events and physical and mental responses now have the chance to break down to their base level for the next day’s events. Think about how crabby a child – or you – is when they didn’t get their nap or had to get up early. Now think about that happening every single night with you. Lack of sleep has been associated with mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. EMS providers are already at risk for these disorders and others because of what we see and experience in the field. Add lack of sleep to that experience…well, PTSD and suicidal attempts are rising problems in our brothers and sisters in our line of work for a reason.

Lack of sleep often leads to a compromised immune system. When our bodies are required to be constantly moving, our immune system does not have time to reset and build on messages it’s received. We get exposed to a LOT of lovely illnesses. I quit worrying about catching TB after only 6 months as an EMT in private transport due to the number of TB positive patients we transported before finding out they had already been declared TB positive, just no one bothered to tell the responding crew. Our immune systems should seem invincible, but if we don’t give it the time of sleep to strengthen, it will simply maintain and not be strong enough to fight infection when we do get sick.

Not getting enough sleep has also been tied to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, stroke, and sleep apnea (when you do sleep). All of these possible effects of poor sleep habits are also risks of chronic stress – not just because chronic stress affects sleep. Don’t forget that lack of sleep slows the thinking process and reflexes, both of which are needed for driving something like a car or a squad.

Think about it. If your body is constantly in that state of fight or flight, your heart is working overtime on a constant basis with moments of working even harder still with acute stress that comes with our job when those tones drop.

How do you reduce your stress levels? How do you let your body rest and reset?

I like yoga. I took a semester of yoga at my local college which benefited my lifting as I was taught how to be aware of each individual muscle and how to activate each muscle. I learned different breathing techniques which has helped me and my patients on calls. My personal favorite was deep relaxation. In short, you are putting your body into such a relaxed state that you may fall asleep during the deep relaxation time. I used this when I was working 7p-7a and going to school full-time during the day (usually 8/9a – 3/4p). My yoga instructor said 20 minutes of deep relaxation – when done right – could give your body a reset as if you had just slept 2- 4 hours. I used every day between getting home from class and leaving for work.

Going outside for a walk in the park or a nature preserve can help; taking your shoes off while walking around a garden or by a lake has a calming effect for most people. (There is actually a huge scientific reason for this which you can read more about here.) I also have a Himalayan salt lamp which basically cancels out things like technology which can mess with our neurotransmitters. It has been shown that those salt lamps can help people with anxiety and different forms of depression. I personally have found that to be true. Right now, researchers are looking into cardiac and respiratory benefits of salt lamps with early results appearing promising.

Other coping strategies include talking with someone whether they are a trained counselor or psychologist or someone who is in our field of work and can relate to how you’re feeling. Exercise produces neurotransmitters which combat the overload of neurotransmitters resulting from chronic stress.

In Women in EMS Part 2, I’ll talk more about exercise and the fitness aspects of our field. I considered putting it all into one, very long article but felt this mental health, stress, aspect of our job was too important to just barely touch on as would have happened if combined with the exercise portion, which is also incredibly important as you will see next time if you haven’t realized it already!