Canadian Firefighter Magazine

You cannot pour from an empty cup

By Julia Long   

Features Health and Wellness Wellness editors pick

Tips to incorporate self-care into your life

Simple stretches are part of injury prevention and an important element to overall self-care for firefighters. Photo credit: fifeflyingfife/Adobe Stock

Let’s pause and chat a wee bit about self-care, shall we? Think back to the last time you boarded an airplane. What was the safety presentation’s number one guidance with respect to the use of oxygen masks? Apply your mask first before assisting others. This is the meaning behind the statement, “you cannot pour from an empty cup.”  Fill your “cup” with energy, physical health, positive affirmations and strong mental resilience before you set out to help others.

Imagine you are the firefighter that has just finished at a multi-alarm fire. It is time to pack up. You are exhausted, but it is time to roll up the hoses. You know you have to get the water out of the hose to get back to the station, where a thorough cleaning and drying will take place. A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health listed risks of injury from high to very high when lifting the hose above the shoulder to drain it of excess water and for rolling the hoses on the ground. Extreme risk of injury was found in lifting the hose from chest height to above the shoulders during hose drainage. Firefighters reported a musculoskeletal disorder rate of 179 per 10,000 full-time workers. Cumulative trauma disorders can be described as wear and tear on joints and surrounding tissue because of overuse. Every joint in the body can potentially be affected, but the lower back and upper limbs are the areas that receive the most injuries. Plus, many first responders drive vehicles shared with others. How many of you adjust the vehicle you are driving?  Be honest now. Twisting to see, or even just to reach for that seat belt can cause injury to an already overtaxed shoulder and neck. Since we are talking about your duty vehicle here, how many of you step or jump out of the vehicle and pivot on the same leg multiple times a shift?

As mentioned, many of you also work out diligently to build muscle to be fit and ready to carry out your duties.  However, did you know that these tight muscles compress the joints and create friction when you move? This is true for most joints, but mostly shoulders, hips and even the spine. How many of you consciously create space in a joint before you move it? I am going to guess, not too many.

Now, we have only mentioned some possible physical injuries at this point. We all know the impact of calls gone wrong, second-guessing your actions after the fact, or fatigue and exhaustion due to shift-related interruptions to your circadian rhythm (the natural internal process that regulates your sleep cycle). These are just a few mental health challenges that firefighters must juggle.


Here is the pertinent fact as to why first responder self-care is so important. When you have a thought, the human body naturally creates a reaction. Hormones can boost or reinforce that feeling. The thoughts you have affect the chemistry of your body. Before long, your body can create a pattern of feeling in this way. When you are stressing your body due to an injury or being mentally stressed, your body releases cortisol. High levels of cortisol over a period of time can cause high blood pressure, disrupt sleep (even more than shift work), negatively impact mood, create fatigue, and even cause weight gain. This is not the person you want to be as a firefighter, right?

So, what can you do? First, you can add functional movement into your workouts for injury prevention. Our daily patterns of movement fall into limited gestures that do not move the body through all planes of motion, decreasing adaptability and flexibility over time. Some simple movements can be done anywhere and anytime to ensure you bend, extend, twist, hinge, pivot, rotate, reach, and fold. Second, you can learn breathwork to calm your mind and nervous system. Breathwork can be done literally anywhere and anytime.  Third, you can pause for a few moments, for example with meditations, allowing your system to reset. Meditations can also be done anywhere and anytime. They do not need to be long to gain the benefits. Fourth, you can introduce positive affirmations to help change your thought patterns. Simple thoughts, such as being grateful for even the little things, can be very powerful. Again, you can do this anywhere and anytime. Where you focus your energy, you empower.

So, please, pause and take some time for your own self-care. You are important. Thank you for your service.  


F.R.Y. — First Responders’ Yoga Canada was founded by Sasy Cacace and Julia Long, experienced yoga instructors with Yoga Alliance who have been practitioners for over 15 years. They are CanFitPro fitness trainers and authors.  

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