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Firefighters Learning To Stay in Shape

May 5, 1992

ENGLEWOOD, N.J. (AP) _ From a deep sleep, firefighters are swiftly roused to a demanding and stressful job. They return, sit around the station, and all too often turn to chips or cookies.

When that happens over and over, the results are overweight, out-of-shape firefighters unprepared for the rigors of their job.

The fire department in this New York suburb has taken the first steps to break the pattern. Joining a growing number of companies and organizations that are teaching employees nutrition and fitness in an effort to improve their health and cut costs, Englewood offered aerobics, cooking and nutrition classes at the fire house all last month.

Firefighter Jerry Marion, 25, said his colleagues had been concerned about their health and wanted to become fitter, but didn’t know how to go about it.

Now, they’ve given up bacon and eggs for breakfast and are bringing in healthy food from home. And he said they won’t reprise one meal from earlier this year: four meat loaves with bacon on top, 10 pounds of potatoes and lots of gravy - for eight people. ″And there was hardly anything left.″

″If a firefighter goes out of here in good shape, there’s less chance of getting hurt,″ Fire Chief Douglas F. Baker said.

″The average firefighter is dead within five years of retirement. Emphysema, heart attack, the whole ball of wax,″ said Robert Henecker, who’s been a firefighter for 26 years and plans to retire after his teen-age children finish college.

At 8 a.m. on a recent day, 10 men lined up in the rec room for a rigorous, sweaty aerobics class that trainer Keith Byard designed to help firefighters climb, lift people and haul gear around.

By the fourth week of class, the firefighters said, they felt better and could accomplish more.

″In the beginning of the month, we couldn’t do near as many pushups,″ said Henecker, 50.

Later, cooking teacher Ellen Mandel demonstrated vegetable lasagne and peach crisp, with fat kept to around 30 percent of calories. She also talked about cutting down on animal fats and using low-fat foods, and offered other tips.

Firefighter Joe Sorbanelli has become savvy about food labels, thanks to nutrition classes at work. He now can talk fat grams and percentages with the best of consumers.

The program included fitness screenings and assessments at the start and conclusion of the month.

One month doesn’t make a lifelong change, of course. And one of the toughest things about changing eating and exercise habits is sticking to the new lifestyle.

But Sorbanelli, 23, said firefighters help motivate one another, organizing sessions in the weight room rather than in front of the television.

The program was sponsored by Best Foods, which intends to evaluate how well it worked and keep in touch with firefighters to make sure they keep up the changes they make, said spokeswoman Jane Uetz.

The company plans to repeat the program with a West Coast fire department and then expand from there. The firefighters in Englewood videotaped the exercise and cooking classes, too, so they’ll have handy refreshers.

Baker said just about all 43 people in his department participated in the program, which was voluntary.

There are remnants of the old ways, however.

In the kitchen, where the television is located, there are cigarette and candy machines. Baker says most people in the department have quit smoking, but there’s been no lobbying to have the machines removed.

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