It was a cold Tuesday in November. I woke up three minutes before my alarm and an hour before the sun, because in this line of work if you’re not early you’re late, and while you’re sleeping the enemy is training and getting stronger. My day began with a 45-minute workout in our home garage, followed by the daily wake up brush your teeth don’t hit your brother eat your fruit put on your shoes throw your trash away dance I do with my 5-year-old daughter before she heads off to preschool. After gently shoving my family out the door, I suited up and headed to work.
That day, I was tasked with speaking to a group of 15 newly promoted supervisors. The topic I was asked to speak on was officer wellness, my favorite! As a police psychologist, I get commissioned to do these sorts of talks often. Sometimes I’m speaking in front of hundreds of responders and other times I’m in briefings with five to 10. Regardless or the size of the group, every talk goes something like this: Did you know that the job changes you physically, emotionally and mentally? Did you know that if you don’t take care of yourself, you’ll end up like that guy? (Every department has “that guy” who didn’t use to be such an asshole, but somewhere along the way he changed.) And finally, did you know that you are in control of your mind and your body, and that if you lean in and intentionally work on you, if you acknowledge your ailments — whether mental or physical — and do something about them, you won’t have to become “that guy” and you can collect more checks in retirement than you did on the job?
Back to Tuesday.
I walked into the room and scanned the landscape. Some officers just got off night shift and were pounding energy drinks. Some folks looked like deer in headlights, shifting back and forth in their seats, wondering what they had gotten themselves into (welcome to promotion). Some were bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to go make a difference for their people and department in this new supervisory role. The facilitator before me had just wrapped up talking about new legislation related to SB 2, a California mandate guiding the complaint review process for peace officers. So now that the room was sufficiently jacked up, it was time to bring them back down.
My first question to the group was “Who got their workout in today?” One person raised their hand, followed by the obligatory nervous laughter from the rest of the room. One person. I wish I could say I was shocked. Unfortunately, this is too commonly the answer I get. Somewhere between the academy and promoting, our officers have stopped prioritizing their well-being at the expense of their tactical effectiveness, officer safety, interpersonal relationships and happiness. Maintaining a good exercise routine isn’t about being the biggest or baddest; it’s about being the guy who doesn’t become a statistic. On average, cops live six years after retirement. Over 50% will have a diagnosable clinical condition at some point in their career. As of the time I wrote this article, we have 133 documented officer suicides for 2022. This doesn’t have to be the way it is because it’s the way things have always been … not when it comes to your safety and your health.
Listen, I get it. There are some things that are unavoidable in the profession, like the injuries that add up after wearing the belt for 20 years, but what if I told you that there were some avoidable injuries and diseases? If you exercise 22 minutes a day and get your heart rate up above baseline, you reduce your chance of a heart attack by over 50%. Think about it. Walk 11 minutes that way and 11 minutes back. Not all that much time out of your day, if you think about it and plan for it.
Speaking of thinking and planning, when you do high-intensity exercise, your heart rate increases and oxygen gets released into your bloodstream and brain, leading to something called neurogenesis, or an increase in neurons. Specifically, neurogenesis occurs in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Exercise also influences a protein in your brain that contributes to a lower risk of dementia and other mild cognitive impairment, as well as modulating dopamine and serotonin — two chemicals linked with depression, mood, sleep and anxiety.
The moral of the story is that exercise is more important than you might be giving it credit for, and if you have fallen out of your routine because of shift work, life work or parent work, or you just got lazy, that’s OK, because it is what it is. But ask yourself, is it the way you want things to be? Are you comfortable with the enemy being faster, stronger and smarter than you, or will you commit to doing something different? We can’t all be Jocko (nor should we try), but we can strive every day to be a little bit better than yesterday. So what does that look like for you?
Here are some recommendations if you’re considering starting an exercise routine:
- Choose a workout you enjoy. You don’t have to pump iron and take selfies (please don’t) when it may be more fun for you to go on a hike, bike or swim. The other day we had a novel experience in California — rain. My kids and I jumped in puddles for 20 minutes and turned it into interval and sprint work. Be creative!
- Plan your workouts. Don’t assume you will get off work on time, don’t assume you will have the energy and don’t assume you’ll get to it when you feel like it. Plan your workouts, and plan your day around them to the extent that you can. This might mean waking up an hour before you do now. It may not be fun to think about the night before; however, I can almost guarantee that as soon as you’re done, you’ll be glad you did it.
- Set a goal. We are a goal-oriented culture, and we are more likely to be successful if we hold ourselves accountable to a metric of some kind. Whether that metric is 22 minutes a day for two weeks straight or being able to squat three plates by February, the intention is what is primary.
It’s a new year. So what? (A similar “So what” to when a person outside of public safety tells you “Happy Friday.”) Every day, you have an opportunity to wake up and change the course of your life, one decision at a time. I challenge you — right here, right now — to make a decision not to succumb to complacency or excuses or become a statistic I reference in my next talk. I challenge you to be a pain to those working in HR who are cutting more checks because you choose to live and be healthy and engaged in your well-being. Now it’s up to you: Do you accept the challenge?