How to implement a department-wide health, fitness program

Implementing policies that incentivize officers to be healthier and more physically fit can be a huge factor in your program's success


Pulse of Policing 2015: The State of Law Enforcement is an ongoing research venture aimed at examining the current state of policing in America from the individual, organizational, and industrial perspectives. Below is one in a series of pieces which will address the challenges facing police leaders during times of diminishing budgetary support and increasing public scrutiny. Learn more about Pulse of Policing

There are many reasons why an agency should consider establishing a department-wide health and fitness program. Fit officers will be more resilient against illness and injury and use less sick days as a result. A fit workforce will be able to perform the physical tasks of law enforcement work more efficiently. Finally, in shape officers will have better command presence in uniform and represent the department well in the community. 

There are two approaches to establishing such a program — the “carrot” and the “stick.” The stick approach is a mandatory fitness program with punitive consequences for not meeting fitness standards. Attempting to implement a fitness program in this manner will likely meet resistance from officers and carries with it a host of legal issues. More importantly, a mandatory/punitive approach to fitness will only encourage officers to meet the bare minimum standards and foster negative attitudes about fitness. 

No matter how extensive your health program is, it's important to implement one. (GustavoHCL Image via WikiCommons)
No matter how extensive your health program is, it's important to implement one. (GustavoHCL Image via WikiCommons)

The carrot approach to a department-wide fitness program will help cultivate positive attitudes about the program, officer buy-in, and long-term health and wellness benefits for officers. The carrot is a voluntary fitness program with incentives — financial and non-financial — for participating officers. Possible fitness program incentives include:

1. Health insurance discounts: Fit officers are less likely to use health care benefits and could be incentivized with lower premiums or rates.

2. A monetary fitness bonus: Officers who pass a physical fitness test could be given a monthly or yearly fitness bonus to use towards a gym membership or at-home fitness equipment. The Cooper fitness test is used by many police academies nationwide. The test scores show which percentile an officer falls in and those percentiles could be used to stagger multiple tiers of bonuses. This would incentivize officers to improve their fitness scores each year instead of just meeting the minimum required standard. 

3. On-duty fitness time: Giving officers three hours of on-the-clock fitness time per week would remove any excuses for not finding time for exercise. This could be implemented by allowing officers to clock in one hour early to train before their shift or by paying officers bonus hours each pay period once they have passed the physical test to compensate for off duty training. Officers often envy firefighters’ ability to work out on-the-clock. This option would level the playing field. 

These monetary bonuses are ideal, but they will take time to implement through contract negotiations and need the support of your city council and/or mayor’s office. However, there are also steps a department can take to cultivate a positive department-wide attitude towards fitness that are more immediately actionable. 

● Seek help from fitness professionals in the community: Reach out to local Crossfit gyms or university athletic departments and offer the coaches in these locations a mutually beneficial arrangement. A coach may be open to hosting free clinics for officers in your departmental gym. This would provide officers with free hands-on coaching and offer the coach a chance to show off his or her skills for potential clients. An article in the newspaper about working with the local police or a positive review from the local chief of police on the coach or gym’s website would also help bring in new clients. 

● Institute department-wide fitness challenges: Police officers are competitive by nature. Take advantage of this with voluntary department-wide challenges. Stagger departmental powerlifting meets, 5K races, Crossfit competitions, and basketball games throughout the year. The competitions will build camaraderie and encourage fitness.

Going Above and Beyond: The City of Reno Example

A few years ago, the City of Reno (Nev.) partnered with Specialty Health and Robb Wolf, the New York Times best-selling author of The Paleo Solution, to establish a unique intervention program for city workers (including police officers) at risk for heart disease. Wolf described the program in a blog post on his website.  

“The program provides a risk assessment looking at specific biomarkers to find people who are insulin resistant, inflamed, and at high risk of cardiovascular disease. This program is unique in that we find folks who would otherwise pass through a screen as ‘healthy’ but who are actually running around with serious problems, such as very high LDL-P, despite having ‘normal’ cholesterol levels,” Wolf wrote. “People who flag as high risk are placed on a low-carb/paleo diet, counseled on sleep and exercise, vit-D levels are tracked, and in some cases a very low dose statin is used to bring lipoprotein levels down.”

According to a Police Chief Magazine report on the initiative in its early stages, 15 police officers participated in the program at rollout. Nine of those officers were initially described as high-risk. Following a three-month analysis, the 15 officers were reevaluated, and the nine high-risk officers had reduced their risk factors significantly.

As a direct result of this early success, the city now has all of its police officers and firefighters going through the program.

The City of Reno went above and beyond to help their officers get healthy, resulting in huge financial savings for the city. This is just one example of the many things you can and should do in your agency, even if your health program is on a smaller scale. No matter how extensive your health and wellness initiatives are, they're important to implement and beneficial to all parties involved. 

By using any of the above strategies — from providing on-duty workout time to implementing department-wide fitness challenges like basketball games — your officers can be healthier and more likely to prevail on the street.

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