Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Tools of the Trade: A plan in motion

By Sean Kingswell   

Features Fitness Health and Wellness editors pick

If you notice even the beginning of an issue, if the detector sounds, put a plan in “motion” Photo: Syda Productions/Adobe Stock

When we look at overall health and more specifically holistic wellness, there is a myriad of factors or modalities that need to come together for optimal success. The benefits of exercise are well documented with adherence and compliance being a significant variable across society and the fire fighting industry.  An equally important element is mental health, which has gained significant momentum in the modern fire fighting world. We now know that stress and mental health need to be actively managed with positive and often individualized strategies. When we look at exercise, we think of its benefits on the body but it is a top, if not the top, strategy for managing mental health. A good fire department requires quality prevention and suppression techniques working in tandem in its fight against fire. Mental health needs both strategies as well and the beauty of exercise is that fulfills both roles. It helps us to prevent stress but also suppress it when it rears its ugly head.

One reason that it is such a powerful suppression tool is based on history. Our nervous systems, which were designed to keep us alive, have not evolved as effectively as our society or species. In the past, when a significant threat to life existed, our body and mind would work together to initiate a fight or flight response to help keep us alive. The problem in today’s society is the risk or stressor may be far less intense, yet the physiological response is still the same to varying degrees. When this reaction is triggered, we marinate in numerous chemicals, hormones and neurotransmitters produced to help us fight or flight. The historical survival process of running or fighting used up these substances as that was there sole purpose.  So, if fighting and running get rid of stress hormones it is very important to realize that fundamentally they are both simply….exercise.

There are different forms of exercise that can be done to help with stress. Using the above physiological analogy means a more intense style of exercise is likely ideal. This could include HIIT training, metabolic resistance training, weight training or whatever style of exercise you prefer. My personal opinion is that some form of resistance or metabolic training is ideal as it usually requires enough brain power (complex movements, coordination, muscle recruitment, etc.) to make it more difficult to daydream. The cognitive needs allow, and in some ways force, you to get your mind off of whatever may be bothering you. Though anecdotal, it is also my experience that exercise can break down the defenses of the nervous system and allow a cathartic experience. I have seen clients in tears in the middle of a workout. The exercise helped shave off the intensity of their nervous system, allowing them to have a moment to face and vent their concerns.

For others it may be running, which has the associated high so many runners enjoy. It could be biking, it could be swimming. All three of these can be done at varying intensities. These can be solitary activities which don’t require a gym and may benefit those who prefer these modalities. Find what works for you. Similar to any exercise plan, goal number one is to make sure we are getting it done to reap the physical and mental health benefits. Homeowners don’t wait until their house is burnt down to call us for help. They call as soon as they see the smallest of problems, at the first whiff of smoke; the siren of the detector. The same applies to mental health and exercise. If you notice even the beginning of an issue, if the detector sounds, put a plan in “motion”.


Another common distinguisher of a stress relief technique is doing something you enjoy. Finding what you like may be trial and error. Yoga is something that can be very beneficial and a passion for many. It is a different type of challenge and can be quite the experience. Yoga has an interesting energy flow and incorporates breathing patterns that can be great for stress. Breathing techniques are an extremely effective way to reduce stress and again the proof is based in simple physiology. Walking can be an activity that is helpful with stress and can also include nature. If you are walking for exercise, stress relief or both try to walk with purpose as too much of a saunter may not create the desired results.

Sports can be a great outlet as they are both physical and social. If you have lost your sport because of the pandemic please try to make up the difference elsewhere for both body and mind.  This is a stressful time for many with all that is going on and there has never been a more important time to manage our mental health. Use your body to balance your mind. 

Sean has been a professional firefighter and personal trainer/wellness coach for 22 years. With many areas of specialty, he has had the privilege of helping countless individuals meet their goals. 

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