Studies have shown that law enforcement officers live an average of 15 years less than the rest of the population. While the data may be shocking in its size, there probably isn’t a single officer who doesn’t know that being in law enforcement has consequences to their physical and mental health.
Law enforcement health is an important and often forgotten topic.
According to a study, the average law enforcement officer carries 30 pounds of weight around their duty belt along, during shifts that can last 12 hours or more, in all weather conditions and through demanding physical exertion.
Mental health is possibly an even more-seldom discussed problem: PTSD is a true problem, in the law enforcement community. A study by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports that more officers die from suicide than in the line of duty.
Law enforcement wellness is, clearly, an important topic to cover.
While every situation is different, here are 6 things law enforcement officers can do today to improve their health.
1. Commit to Proper Nutrition
Eating healthy is important for everyone, but especially for law enforcement officers, who’s daily tasks are demanding and require physical and mental acumen.
While eating right requires a conscious decision, eating right while on duty can be challenging.
Choosing to plan one’s meals can be a way to avoid last-minute decisions.
Planned meals can account for healthy choices, including avoiding empty calories (donuts, anyone?), which provide a quick boost of energy, followed by a crash, and opting for nutrient-rich foods, including lean meat, eggs, and fruit.
Packing snacks like nuts is a good way to remain healthy, while keeping easy-to-store food on the ready.
A healthy diet should be followed at home and on duty, and can help law enforcement officers remain in good mental and physical shape.
2. Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Like your mom (and any mattress commercial) would tell you: don’t underestimate the power of a good night’s sleep.
A police officer’s performance might be affected, if he or she does not get enough good sleep. Additionally, and more importantly, lack of sleep can negatively impact their physical and mental health, too.
Studies published by the National Institute of Health (NIH) show that sleep deficiency affects law enforcement officers on both the night and day shifts: both reported less overall sleep and worse sleep quality as compared to other occupations.
Officers with sleep disorders had a higher likelihood of a safety violation or error owing to weariness, uncontrollable anger toward a suspect, absenteeism, or major administrative errors as compared to those without.
Making sure that officers of all ranks receive enough sleep can help them work better and maintain a healthy force.
Make sure your sleep habits are not negatively affected by things over which you have control: eating too much, too late, falling asleep with the television on, and drinking alcohol can negatively impact your sleep quality.
While law enforcement officers are often unable to control their sleep schedule, it’s important to develop a “going to sleep” routine.
3. Stop Smoking
By now, there isn’t much we can say about the dangers of smoking that has not been said already.
According to studies published by the NIH, Police officers smoke 4.8 times higher than the general public (25.5% vs 5.3%). The stress experienced on the job is, often, a contributing factor.
If you are a smoker, quitting should be among your top priorities. Resources to quit smoking are available publicly, but your agency may offer additional tools to support your journey to a smoke-free life.
4. Exercise Properly
Keeping in shape is important for everybody, but it is especially true for first responders and, in particular, for law enforcement officers, whose life can be thrust in situation where someone is trying to actively harm them.
According to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, 58,627 assaults on police officers were recorded in 2016, with 16,677 assaults resulting in injuries. If an officer gets hurt while executing their duties, several circumstances will come into play. However, officers have some influence over one mitigating factor: their physical health.
Regular exercise is a way to ensure physical fitness, but also to boost our mental health.
Make sure you build an exercise regimen in your daily life. Even if you can’t invest hours a day training, making sure that you carve out regular, ongoing time for exercise will go a long way toward ensuring you physical readiness.
Exercises should address the key components of physical fitness for law enforcement: muscular strength, flexibility, endurance, balance, agility, speed, and coordination.
5. Improve and Maintain Your Mental Wellness
On a regular basis, officers are exposed to traumatic calls for service, including child abuse, domestic violence, vehicle accidents, and homicides. The development of disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and burnout may be linked to repeated exposure to these stresses and events.
Maintaining a routine that promotes mental health should be a priority, just like it is for physical health.
In addition to services like the Virginia Law Enforcement Assistance Program, which helps law enforcement officers and first responders who have undergone traumatic critical incidents in the line of duty or in their personal lives, officers can develop routines that include meditation and mindfulness.
Seeking mental health support, when necessary, should be stripped of the stigma that, at times, it carries.
Agencies should also foster an environment where mental wellness and health are discussed and become part of the overall wellness goals for their officers, as this Police1 article on mental wellness suggests.
6. Choose Duty Gear Designed with Your Health in Mind
Ensuring that health and wellness are part of every officer’s routine should be a priority, to ensure that the many challenges that come with being in the force entail do not affect the rest of his or her life.
A routine designed to improve an officer’s physical and mental well-being does not have to be difficult or demanding, but it takes focus and choices.
You owe it to yourself and to your family to be the healthiest you can be, and the rewards are incredible.