The police academy got you all skinny, now the streets are going to get you fat. Ever heard of “the Freshman 15” phenomenon in college? It occurs in the police world as well, and for the exact same reasons.
How will this happen? Let’s break it down. During your first year or so on the job, there is one word that describes what you will be attempting to achieve over all else if you are normal… Acceptance. It will become very important to you to be accepted by your peers and much more importantly by the senior officers.
Looking for Acceptance and Trust on the Job
In the quest for acceptance, young officers, especially those on probation, basically eat and drink when and where the older ones do. This obligation, coupled with your new schedule including overtime, can have a detrimental effect on your fitness during your first years on the job.
Law enforcement subcultures can be inclusive and secular. If you are looking to be accepted quickly when you are new, you will need to learn to “go with the flow”; if you don’t, you will never really gain the follow-on to acceptance…Trust. Trust from your peers is the gold-standard in police work. It is what matters most. It basically says that your co-workers believe that you will hold your own in a violent situation or in the administrative meat-grinder that can follow it. Trust in police work means that your colleagues believe that you will make sure that they get home to their families at night.
So, what does this have to do with police fitness? Does it seem tangential? It’s not actually. I’ll give you an example. Young officers will typically eat at the same spots as their senior mentors during their meal break (if they even have a choice) maybe even only just to “fit in”. These establishments may not serve the healthiest food.
If you are a brand new officer reading this, one who brings all their paleo/vegan/low-carb/GF foods (in neatly labeled and weighed Tupperware) into the radio car and eats that stuff when their FTO goes to the pizza shop…guess what? You just eroded away a little bit of that elusive “acceptance”.
You don’t think you did, because all the people at your Crossfit Box pack a healthy lunch for work, but alas, they aren’t cops. Your friends at the box or gym probably do not work in a highly judgmental (and a bit backwards thinking) shark tank, where every little character trait is being watched and analyzed for weakness. The senior people (mostly the males) are observing you. They are watching.
They want you to assimilate and be like them, so they can what? trust you.
What is the first step to trust?
So, what did most of us cops do in past generations? We just went along to get along… we just ate a slice of pizza like everyone else. Then, after a couple of years of this, in conjunction with terrible hours and overtime or court on our days off we realized we had put on 10-15 lbs.
Learning to Be Flexible with Your Diet On the Job
Is the above scenario avoidable during your first years? Sure. When it comes to your on-duty diet, be a little flexible and be a little diplomatic.
DO NOT sip from a mixer bottle of protein in between calls all day in front of your 43 yr old training officer who has a beer gut and 6 kids. You will not gain acceptance doing that.
DO be diplomatic, do your protein drinking in the locker or admin rooms. When the old guys/girls stop at the pizza shop, just order a chicken salad or say you aren’t hungry. You might get a little teasing but they will forget about in 2 minutes when their 4000 cal meal gets delivered to the table. You will not lose any of those important acceptance points for this. Afterwards, go out and put handcuffs on a criminal.
While you are doing the arrest paperwork, you can bust out all your fancy Tupperware and $70/ounce protein powders etc. This can also be done any time you are stuck inside the station house doing admin stuff, which, as a new boot, will be often. If you want to be “one of the guys”, pick a day when you had a particularly hard workout before the shift, and at meal break, go crazy and eat a slice of pizza or a burrito with the guys and girls…it won’t kill you and it will gain you a little bit of that acceptance.
How to Handle Alcohol and Bar Invites
The more “fattening” dilemma during an officers early career is the pressure to go out to the bars with your buddies after the shift. You will probably be in your early 20’s so this activity will not be new for you. Previously, it most likely would have occurred only on weekends. In your new police job it may happen every night...or morning. (That's right, overnight-shift officers go to bars and drink at 7:30 am.) An aside, you will know you are in one of those “late-shift cop” type bars because:
1. People, wearing work pants and flannel shirts will be sitting at the bar whispering to each other (or not speaking at all)
2. There will be NO females in the establishment
3. It will smell bad and you will experience an overwhelming aura of depression and hopelessness upon entering.
4. There may be several small holes in the ceiling or walls (figure it out)
I can pretty much guarantee that if the senior cop on your shift finally asks you and your buddies to “meet us over at the bar after the shift”, you are going to go. Trust me. Even the most steadfast, health-conscious rookies will go. Even the “work, church, home” guys will go. You will go. Why? Because you want that acceptance. The senior cops are asking you to go for a couple reasons, first, they want to see how you act under the influence of alcohol, and two, they want to interrogate you a bit to see if you can eventually be trusted.
This first trip to the bar is the step-off point to where you, if you don’t have a plan…will start the path to becoming out of shape. See below for some ways to avoid having that familiar chubby face in your first “officer of the month” photo.
Have a Plan. Go back to the old “be diplomatic” rule. Some cops, both young and old will go out after every work night. Some will go to the above described cop bars, and some will go out to traditional places where you can actually interact with civilians.
Police Fitness Tip: Resist the urge to go out every night. Even if you are single with no one waiting for you at home, take a pass periodically. The others won’t notice that. It won't hurt your acceptance level. It will however help you maintain your fitness. They will only notice if you NEVER go out with them. Then they will not accept you fully.
When I was new, our rookie crew literally went out 6 nights a week. We weren’t doing it because we were alcoholics or even solely to meet girls/guys, we went out because we loved that feeling of social bonding with the other off-duty cops. This activity was the “other half” of the professional bonding that occurred at work. We had 8 or 10 of us at the bar, with full size service pistols, extra mags and expensive folding knives under our shirts (don’t do this) and we were telling stories of what we did during our shift, either to each other or to other patrons whom we found physically attractive.
During all this fun, you will become a “routine drinker”. You could conceivably drink as many as 6 beers a night with your cop buddies just sitting there telling stories, and more than that on weekends when the “normal” people start inhabiting the bars. All that alcohol will put pounds on even the most active young officer.
And, guess what you won’t feel like doing before work the next day?
That's right… You won’t want to work out. You especially won't want to work out if you are tired, hungover and know you are headed to your regular gig plus maybe that 12 hour overtime shift you signed up for.
Police Fitness Tip: Don’t try and burn the candle at both ends. If you know you have a heavy workout the next day, just go home. Make up some excuse. Save your carousing for the weekend nights like a normal person, skip the Mondays and Tuesdays. Your metabolism will thank you. If you are were too “weak” to make that sensible decision see below for Plan B.
Plan B: Master something called the “Irish exit”, it's the single best weight loss technique going. It's also an art. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the Irish Exist is when you slip out of a bar early without saying goodbye to your friends. Get out of there! You did your duty, you showed up, but you need to hit the gym tomorrow, and the longer you stay out, the lower quality your workout will be the next day (if you make it at all).
You will be sleep deprived in your first years as a cop just from the work schedule, don’t add heavy drinking to that if you can avoid it. We all know how lack of sleep deteriorates workout quality and overall fitness. So, do some Irish exits once in awhile. Wait for a diversion, like while one of your buddies is puking into his jacket, then slide out the door. Don’t worry, even if you do miss something fun, tomorrow night they all will be out after the shift again for more shenanigans.
Take Care of Your Fitness to be a Better Officer
Ok, back at work. Most of your physical confrontations as a cop are going to require raw, functional strength, because you can’t just gouge a suspect's eyes out or break both their wrists because they won’t, for example, leave the local convenience store or get off a subway car. Using moderate physical force will become routine for you as a cop. You will need to project physical force that does not cause any injury, but still encourages people to do as you say. You will benefit just from the appearance of being fit and strong because street criminals usually think twice about confronting and officer with an ostensibly strong appearance It’s always better to be the strong cop than the weak one, period.
I mention this in the “early years” article because that is the period in your career when you are going to first realize this (probably very dramatically). Read more about your fitness early in your law enforcement career here.
Remember, the veteran cops like it when their probationers are fit and strong: it makes their job easier and eliminates the need for them to chase people and climb fences. It will impress them when you display fitness on duty effectively. What they don’t like is when you constantly show them how fit you in comparison to them by asking to stop at Vitamin Shoppe every shift or showing up to work each day dressed entirely in CrossFit gear.
Again, remember, the goals are acceptance...then trust.
Thomas Longa retired after 22 years in law-enforcement, the last 15 of which were as a member of the NYPD Emergency Service Unit’s Apprehension Team (A-Team) He currently works training SWAT teams nationwide.