5 keys to retiring from police work with a healthy body

Police work is hard on the body, but you can take preventative measures to help avoid permanent damage


Article updated April 20, 2018.

Late last year I gave in to my orthopedic surgeon and let him outfit me with a brand a new left knee. A freak accident when I was a rookie cop – plus years of distance running, bike patrol, and general abuse of my body – finally took its toll and my knee had worn out.

As I rehabbed and continued to travel and train, I met many retired law enforcement officers with stories of new knees and hips, rebuilt shoulders and more.

Whether you sit at a desk or in a patrol car, figuring out ways to increase movement will improve your health. (Photo/PoliceOne)
Whether you sit at a desk or in a patrol car, figuring out ways to increase movement will improve your health. (Photo/PoliceOne)

We all agreed that a career in police work is awfully hard on the human body, but what exactly causes our injuries? Here are a few thoughts.

Sitting is the New Smoking

Studies by the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research in the 1970’s determined that police work was primarily a sedentary job. Quite frankly, not much has changed in 40 years. Unless you’re walking a beat, on bike patrol, or part of a full-time SWAT team, you do a lot of sitting. 

Some health enthusiasts have coined the phrase “sitting is the new smoking.” One Canadian study claims that sitting for eight to 12 hours per day increases your risk of Type 2 diabetes. The Mayo Clinic’s research has found that too much sitting can result in obesity, poor cardiovascular health and even cancer. 

Explosive Movement

When we do stop sitting and start moving, often it’s the unplanned exertion of a foot pursuit, a fight, or other explosive movement that can cause injury. Taking your body from “zero to 60” is never healthy, and can also cause a catastrophic cardiovascular event, as we see many times each year when seemingly healthy police officers, usually men, succumb to sudden heart attacks. 

The Tools of the Trade

Patrol officers spend a good deal of their shift in a cramped patrol car cockpit with more electronics than a small aircraft. Their gunbelts are generally set up to meet general orders or department tradition instead of comfort and function. 

Many cops – especially female officers – experience permanent bruising and nerve damage on their gun-side hip, and most of us experience back problems at one time or another during our careers. Investigators and other “inside” personnel often spend their days and nights hunched over a laptop while cradling their phone in their ear. 

Fatigue and Stress

Shift work is a carcinogen” says PoliceOne’s Dave Smith. It takes the human body at least three months to adapt to a new shift, yet many departments change shifts weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Combine that with overtime, holdovers and court time and you end up with tired cops. Americans have more sleep loss and longer work schedules than other industrialized countries according to a recent Northwestern University study, and this can lead to extreme physical and emotional stress.  

Can You Hear Me Now?

Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) is becoming more prevalent for law enforcement officers. NIHL is generally due to exposure to intense pulse or continuous sound. While gunfire is often the cause of hearing loss in members of the military, police officers are also exposed to loud radio traffic, car horns and other vehicle noise, and assignment specific noises such as a motorcycle engine or a barking K9 partner. 

Making Changes

Now that you know what can or may happen to impair your physical health, the next step is prevention. Here are some of the things I wish I’d learned about 35 years ago when I was a young, invincible crimefighter. 

1. Move your body.

Whether you sit at a desk or in a patrol car you have got to figure out ways to get up and move. On patrol, find reasons to get out of your car. Check your parks, your parking lots, your schools on foot. Walk your strip malls or downtown areas, get out and chat with your citizens. Officer safety is always your priority so be wary, but you’ve got to be deliberate about getting out from behind the wheel. If you sit at a desk, you may have to set an alarm to remind you to get out from behind that computer at least once every hour and walk around the building or outside. Make sure you have good, sturdy athletic-style footwear regardless of assignment, shoes matter.

2. Maintain your fitness.

Cops will always have to chase criminals, fight dirtbags, and move fast from a stationary position in stressful circumstances – these things are just part of the job. The number one thing you can do is to maintain your level of fitness. A stable weight and a strong body and heart will likely serve you well when the time comes. Never stop exercising and never ever stop training both your mind and your body. 

3. Assess your equipment.

Get fully dressed for patrol and stand in front of the mirror. Take a hard look at the location of each tool on your belt in relation to your body. Depending on your size, you may have your OC spray, handcuffs or other tools sitting directly over one of your kidneys, not a good idea. Check your gun holster – make sure it sits at the proper height for a comfortable, speedy draw and it’s pushed out far enough from your hip (especially if you’re female) so that it’s not causing constant friction. Make sure that NO tool sits directly behind the butt of your pistol, this can be deadly. Work with your administration to encourage proper belt set up. Comfort and function are much more important than uniformity. Our profession needs to understand that depending on an officer’s size, not every tool will fit on a gunbelt.

4. Prioritize your rest.

It’s easy for me to suggest that you get more sleep – after all, I’m retired. But every cop out there needs to understand just how physically and mentally devastating fatigue can be. New research suggests that you may be able to “catch up” on your sleep, so try to get in a few extra hours on your days off. Make rest a priority. Make sure you have a totally dark place to sleep, use a white noise machine, consider the use of natural sleep aids like melatonin, and despite what you may have been told the use of alcohol does not enhance sleep, it interrupts it. 

5. Protect your hearing.

Hearing loss in police officers is something that was rarely discussed 20 or 30 years ago. Now many agencies are encouraging enhanced hearing protection during training and annual testing to track potential deterioration. If you begin to experience hearing loss, look into the many new, low profile options available to enhance your hearing. Excellent hearing is one of our most precious officer safety tools – protect it. 

Conclusion

If you spend 20 or more years in police work, there’s a good chance you’re going to experience some sort of injury. Work as hard on prevention as you do on your officer safety skills; the human body is somewhat frail but it can also be amazingly resilient. If you do get hurt, listen to your doctor, change any bad habits you’ve acquired along the way, and work hard to optimize your physical and mental health. Your goal is not only to enjoy your career but to make sure you have a healthy, productive retirement. Stay safe!

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