Mounties battle the bulge, hopefully increase brain power with fitness

REGINA – RCMP Sgt. Rob Lutzko was in peak physical shape when he joined the force in 1993, but admits he’s since packed on a little weight.

“Without a doubt,” smiles Lutzko.

“Coming out of training you are very fit, but over time the job has a lot of paperwork that’s involved, so you are very sedentary and that does cause (you) to put on a few pounds.”

Shift work, being on call and the demands of family can also make it tough to find time to exercise.

Lutzko is battling back against the bulge by taking part in a 12-week program designed to help RCMP officers adopt a more healthy lifestyle. And two researchers from Harvard Medical School want to see how that exercise affects officers’ brains.

Lindsay Shaw and Alex Thornton, brother of NHL star Joe Thornton, are experts in demonstrating how physical activity optimizes brain function.

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“We know that exercise has hugely positive benefits to the brain…with the thinking and the emotional component,” Shaw said on a recent visit to the RCMP training academy’s gym in Regina.

“With officers embarking on the 12-week program, we suspect that there’ll be some pretty significant changes to the brain, so we want to make sure we can capture those changes.”

Shaw said regular exercise activates the front part of the brain where thinking, planning and negotiating takes place. They’ll be administering psychological tests to look for attention, cognitive flexibility and decision-making speed.

Thornton said officers can be pressed to the limit when they work 12 or 18 hours a day. He wants to show them what it takes to be at their best.

“The fitter you are, the more resiliency you have, the less likely you are to succumb to post-traumatic stress disorder….” said Thornton.

“The fitter the person, the fitter the mind. They take in more detail, can recall detail more accurately and see more in any given situation.”

Thornton said Mounties need the highest level of fitness because of the risk of something going wrong in a life-or-death situation. In other walks of life, such as accounting or working at a grocery store, “the risk of failure doesn’t lead to such catastrophic ends.”

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Physical demands can be high on men and women in red serge, yet obesity in the ranks is now at about the national average. Almost a quarter of RCMP officers are considered obese based on standard height and weight measurements.

The 23.8 per cent obesity figure is based on self-reported data between 2007 and 2010, but officials have said high muscle weight can skew some results.

Fiona Vincent, fitness adviser for RCMP F Division, said members face the same challenges as people in the general population.

“Once a member goes through the training academy, now they’re going into a brand-new world,” she said.

“They’ve probably been uprooted from their lifestyle. They’ve gone into a new community. They’ve got new demands. They’re trying to learn a new job, potentially their family has come with them. There are so many competing interests that fitness and your own well-being seems to take a back seat to all the other demands that are being placed on you.”

The 12-week program was first introduced in early 2010 and about 100 RCMP members have taken part.

Lutzko said the most difficult part is the time commitment, but he already feels like he’s in better shape. He’s lost about 10 pounds and plans to keep with it.

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“I do believe that the better physical condition you are, the better you’re equipped to handle the job and having a clear mind.

“If it comes through physical fitness, that’s fantastic.”