This month a study published in Industrial Health reaffirmed the assertion that obesity is a sizable problem for American police officers. However, contrary to the widely disseminated image of the lazing doughnut-loving policeman, obesity is now considered to be a multi-factorial occupational risk of being a law enforcement agent. Elevated levels of obesity in police officers not only pose a sizable problem for an individual officer’s health, but also to issues of law enforcement as a whole.
In their day-to-day work, police officers may be called upon to perform a variety of physical challenges that may range from standing for extended periods of time to violent confrontations. One study of police agencies across the country identified the essential physical skills of a law enforcement officer to be running, climbing, jumping, lifting/carrying, pushing, dragging, and using force.
Despite the necessary physical demands of the job, many police officers are less capable of performing these duties than civilians. One study conducted from 1983 to 1993 found that the average police officer was less in-shape than the average American citizen. Police officers consistently scored lower in tests of aerobic fitness, body fat, and abdominal strength.
More recently, another study from 2011 reported that 40.5 percent of American police officers are obese. This level is noticeably higher than the reported national averages, which suggest that 35.5 percent of adult men and 35.8 percent of adult women are obese. Police officers are also noted to be at a greater risk for cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, and suicide.
Previous studies correlated long working hours and high amounts of stress with an increased risk of developing obesity. Both of these factors are particularly relevant to police officers, who daily work long hours and must interact with many different people in stressful situations.
Recent thinking speculates that the sizable obesity problem among police officers might draw on many factors—not just extended working hours and stress. In a study published this month in Industrial Health, 172 male police officers were asked to report on behavioral variables such as how much sleep they get on average, dietary patterns, maintaining of a supportive social network, and stress management. Other non-behavioral variables such as age and medical history were also taken into account. The researchers then tried to determine which of these variables could be correlated with an increased relative risk of developing obesity.
Based upon this study, only the participation in cardiovascular activity and/or strength training were clear-cut predictors of the relative risk that a police officer will develop obesity. However, these results contradict previous studies that demonstrated that an officer’s obesity and other health issues were related to the high levels of stress, insomnia, alcoholism, and divorce amongst law enforcers.
Research into the sizable occupational risks of police officers developing obesity may potentially be applied by Employee Assistance Programs seeking to solve this problem. One way they might accomplish this would be to incorporate more cardiovascular fitness and strength training into their programming. Alternatively, they might create incentive programs for fit police officers or perhaps to offer discounts for recreational activities that involved physical activity.
By Sarah Takushi