Personal Health : Hawthorne Police Walk a Thin Blue Line With 'Holistic' Fitness

Cops: They run on doughnuts, cigarettes, chili dogs and beer. They get most of their exercise climbing in and out of patrol cars. And they don't know the meaning of the word relax. For decades, that life style has been almost as much a part of a police officer's image as the uniform he wears. And if it leaves him wanting a "skosh" more room around the waistline of those blue trousers, hey--it goes with the job.

"Real cops don't eat doughnuts," proclaims a faded clipping on the Hawthorne Police Department's squad room bulletin board.

Grains and Fruits

"No," someone has scrawled in the margin, "They eat whole pies and cakes at one time."

In Hawthorne, however, they're more likely to be found munching on whole grain breads or fresh fruit these days as part of a new "holistic" fitness program that also includes regular aerobic exercise, relaxation training, and even visualization techniques for stressful situations. "I just don't want to die of a heart attack while I'm chasing some guy," says Officer Mike Heffner, president of the Hawthorne Police Officers Assn., who lost 50 pounds in the program's first six months.

Sixty of the department's 83 officers signed up to participate in the voluntary program, initiated by Chief Steve Port, a devoted fitness enthusiast who often runs 10K races on his days off. The idea is to give officers better protection against the factors most likely to end their careers--or their lives--prematurely: not bad guys' bullets, but cardiovascular disease, obesity and stress.

Most Pervasive Threat

"According to some studies, becoming a police officer can take 12 years off your life," says fitness consultant Joe Dillon of Body Accounting in Irvine, who was hired to administer the program. Bad health is the most pervasive threat: The odds of being killed on the job are only 3.8 in 10,000 for police officers nationwide. But "the average police officer lives only about 3.7 years after retiring," Dillon says.

Dillon began the program in February with seminars on diet and exercise, followed by an initial round of tests measuring each participant's blood pressure, body fat ratio, and stress electrocardiogram, as well as cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

Many officers who had routinely passed the department's previous fitness exam, a biannual 12-minute run, were stunned to find they had flunked the new battery of tests.

"Before, you'd have people come out cold, not in shape, and they'd be huffing and puffing, and you'd be worried to death whether they'd make it around the track," Port says.

"A lot of guys were shocked to find out they were in such bad shape," says Officer Jim Wade. "They had to test a lot of guys twice because they kept saying the numbers were wrong."

Wade, a 26-year-old body builder, says the first test "really scared the hell out of me. I thought I was in really good shape, but then the results came back and it said 'See Physician' on about 12 items. My cholesterol and triglycerides were really high."

In the first six months, Wade's cholesterol level dropped 24 points, and the level of high-density lipoproteins--the kind of cholesterol experts credit with preventing heart attacks--more than doubled. His body fat dropped from 10.7% to 6.1%. To top it off, Wade won a gold medal for power lifting in the Police Olympics. "Joe's advice really made the difference," Wade says. "I was calling him every day and asking him about something or other."

Lower Heart-Attack Risk

Overall, by the time the participants were retested in July, they reduced their heart-attack risk ratio by 15%, and lowered their body fat percentage from 19.6 to 15.3.

Several times a month, Dillon returns to sit down informally with the officers, answering questions and offering advice and encouragement.

"Hey, Joe, what do you think of the seafood diet?" one officer asked at a recent session. "You see food, you eat it."

With a straight poker face, Dillon recommended sticking to the strict Pritikin diet, which all but eliminates fat, cholesterol and refined sugars, as well as alcohol and tobacco. For exercise, he suggests vigorous walking with hand weights, stationary cycling or running.

After Dillon's first series of lectures, so many officers began substituting whole grains and herbal tea for their usual coffee and doughnuts that the local diner ran out of oatmeal, Heffner says. "But now they've stocked up."

Wade says he draws the line at oatmeal. "I won't eat gruel," he says.

Boxes of glazed, powdered and cream-filled delicacies still show up at the station now and then, says Sgt. John Beerling. "Bail bondsmen will bring them in." But now, instead of disappearing within minutes, they go stale. "Nobody wants to be seen sneaking a bite," Beerling says.

Sgt. Arvid Kruger, who so far has lost 30 pounds, got in the habit of passing out slices of whole wheat bread--without butter, margarine or jelly--during shift briefings. "We'd roll it up and pretend it was doughnut holes," Wade says. "That made the transition a little easier."

Occasional Cheating

The officers confess to some occasional cheating: grabbing a few surreptitious handfuls of salted peanuts or buttered popcorn, or even sneaking out for an occasional grease burger. That's to be expected, Dillon says. "But as they start feeling better and seeing the results, that won't happen as much."

The city offers extra days off as incentives to those who can pass the test, up to eight paid days a year. "There's nothing a police officer likes more than a day off," Heffner says. "But I'm really more interested in how many days I can add to my life."

"Some of the guys just said, 'This is a bunch of crap,' and they won't have anything to do with it," says Officer Willie Ray, "but Joe has really taught me a lot. It comes down to self-discipline. I don't stick to it 100%, but I'm doing better all the time."

"If some old-time police officer could walk into our squad room and see how much has changed, with the exercise bikes and fresh fruit on the table, he'd be shocked," says Kruger.

They'd be even more shocked at the program's second six months. Dillon plans to broaden the focus to include more on relaxation techniques. "We'll be using some tapes with guided meditation that they can listen to, and also things they can do on the job, like diaphragmatic breathing and visualization. That way if they have a hard call and get all stressed out, they can get out of it quickly."

The program cost the department approximately $25,000 initially, plus ongoing costs for continued consultation and testing over the next two years. "We're funding it with asset forfeiture money from drugs," Port says. "I love the idea that we're using the crooks' money to make the cops more healthy."

In the long term, Port expects the program to save the department money: "One disability retirement can cost upwards of a half-million dollars over the lifetime of a person. So if we can save one person from that, then this thing has paid for itself and more."

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