There are estimates that only about 20 percent of volunteer firefighters meet the VO2 max fitness level recommended by NFPA 1582. So how might volunteer firefighters best improve their cardiovascular fitness? A study1 published this year explored how circuit training may help.
There are over 800,000 volunteer firefighters in the United States that make up 70 percent of all firefighters. Volunteer firefighters may have long periods with little physical activity, interrupted by response calls that place very high demands on their cardiovascular fitness.
There’s no clear agreement on whether strength, aerobic or some combination of training is most beneficial to reducing cardiovascular risk. A 2012 study (abstract) did suggest that combination training was better for cardiovascular health than aerobic or strength training, but accurate measurements of improved cardiovascular health from exercise have until now not been made.
The circuit training program study
The purpose of this study was to compare the effects of a four-week circuit training program on cardiovascular risk factors between a group of volunteer firefighters and a group of non-firefighters.
This was designed to be a functional circuit that fire companies could set up the stations in their house and some of them did. We even had one fire company set up the six circuit stations in their banquet hall and move the stations around when the hall was rented.— Study author
Participants did circuit training three times per week over the course of four weeks. Each training session involved six stations that they completed a total of three times per workout. The six stations included:
- Forty-pound carry for 100 feet.
- Three-minute stair climb.
- Forty-five-second plank pose.
- Twenty-pound carry with a fast walk for 100 feet.
- Right and left single leg stands for as long as balance was maintained.
- Fifteen-pound carry up and down 30 stairs OR up and down a ladder.
- Cardiovascular health was initially worse in volunteer firefighters compared to non-firefighters in this study.
- Firefighters in this study had a mean average VO2 max level of 35 ml/kg/min, or in other words, less than the NFPA suggested level of 42 ml/kg/min.
- The volunteer firefighters showed signs of being at increased risk of early hardening and narrowing of the arteries. This may stem from the nature of their work or from their personality type. More studies are needed in order to clearly understand why.
- The short four-week circuit training program reduced cardiovascular disease risk by improving important vascular health measures, including central blood pressure.
Exercise interventions aimed at improving health and well-being of firefighters will prove valuable because cardiac-related line-of-duty deaths could potentially be avoided.
Learn more about this research
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1Getty, A., Wisdo, T., Chavis, L., Derella, C., McLaughlin, K., Perez, A., DiCiurcio, W., Corbin, M., Feairheller, D. (2018). Effects of circuit exercise training on vascular health and blood pressure. Preventative Medicine Reports, 10 (6), 106-112.