How To Improve Your Nutrition and Health as a Firefighter with Evan Barger, iCoach Nutrition Coaching Client

Coach Justin: “Evan, how are you?”

Evan: “My man, I’m doing great, How are you Justin?”

Coach Justin: “I am doing good, I’m doing good. So dude, I want to dive right into it, kind of like we do with all of our guests, tell us a little bit more about you and who you are and how you’ve got to where you are in life up to this point.”

Evan: “Okay my name is Evan Barger. I work for Duncanville Fire Department. I’m a firefighter and paramedic. I’ve been a paramedic for about a year and a firefighter for about two years, been with the department since November of 2016. A little bit about my career path, I didn’t initially know I wanted to be a firefighter. I went to college at Hardin Simmons University out in Abilene texas. I thought I wanted to teach and coach and found out that I didn’t and something I was involved in at the time was umpiring baseball. I tried to pursue a career in professional baseball. I did that for three years. It didn’t work out. And so, I came home, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and I had a friend of mine say, hey, why don’t you try being a firefighter, I took a couple of classes, did some ride outs with Duncanville and fell in love with the career. I really have strong appeal to serving others and helping others. It turned out to be a really good fit for me. One of the challenges with that is trying to get hired on, it took me three years to get hired on at a fire department. I did volunteer work for about six months before I got hired on after I attended fire school, but a lot of people are really kind of amazed that, you know, I took so many tests and it took me so long because I know my personality and it was kind of a shock to them. Those three years presented a lot of growing experiences and a lot of learning about myself, but now i’m in what I believe is the greatest profession in the world and I love going to work every day. I love doing what I do and it’s real blessing to be to be a firefighter. It’s truly a brotherhood.”

Coach Justin: “Wow, I love that dude. I had no idea that you attended Harden Simmons. I don’t think we’ve ever had this conversation before, but that’s where all of my mom’s side of the family is from. My grandpa lives right behind McMurry University’s baseball field.”

Evan: “I’ve worked a few games out there and it’s a really nice stadium and ball field. I don’t want to say anything else about McMurry because you know their crosstown rivals.”

Coach Justin: “I grew up going there and it’s so funny because I would always tell my mom I hate this place, like it’s like a ghost town but it’s developed quite a bit since then. Such a small world! My dad was also a volunteer firefighter for like 10 years and he said a lot of the same things that you did. So Evan, obviously we worked together. What are some of the biggest struggles for you that you’ve experienced with nutrition and lifestyle around being a firefighter?”

Evan: “So probably the biggest one is sleep. You know, I go to the station, I get up early. Whenever I go to work, I’m at the station at 6 am. Depending on the day, I could run two calls or 30 calls in a shift and that’s a lot. That’s over one call per hour for that whole 24 hour shift. We sleep at the station, we cook at the station, we do all that stuff. So yeah you know, you try to get comfortable, you sleep when you can, if you’re allowed to you know, but like sleep disturbance is probably the biggest struggle that was just out of my control. That disturbance in your sleep cycle is a big struggle. Something else is how you eat at the station. We try to keep it healthy on my shift, we’ll do a lot of veggies and grilled chicken, but there’s some shifts that all they want is tacos and enchiladas and mexican food. And I love that stuff just as much as anybody but that can be kind of detrimental to your health. The third greatest factor I would say it’s just the stress of the job. It’s very high demanding, there’s a lot of people asking a lot of you, you’re put in some stressful situations whether, you know, it’s a house fire or you know you’re doing CPR on someone who had a bad wreck on the highway. There’s a lot of stress just from that alone that probably plays an underlying issue too. With all those things being said, you have to take things day by day and you just make the best of it.”

Coach Justin: “I think you highlighted three really great areas that we could sit here and and give out the perfect plan but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s gonna work right. Like it’s a very individualized protocol for each person and everybody’s just in a different situation. Some people even have kids on top of it too. With the sleep side of it, you said that you started as a firefighter like 2-3 years ago, did you ever experience sleep issues before that or did you not really pay much attention to it until you and I really started working together?”

Evan: “I’d get up in the middle of the night and go to the bathroom and I wouldn’t think anything of it or I would have some nights where I would just toss and turn. I really started noticing it was when I was on shift. When I got hired on, even on my off days, I was getting up at like 2:00 AM, 4:00 AM, etc. I noticed I was tired all the time. I was trying to get as much sleep as I could, but you still feel tired because of the disturbance of sleep. This past weekend, I worked on Saturday and we were busy, we were busy all day. We had a call around like 5:45 AM and the last one before that was probably around like 11 PM, so that’s roughly six hours of sleep. Then I slept probably over 12 hours after that, but it’s what my body needed and the big thing is just listening to your body and trying to go to bed on your off days and getting good 8-10 hours of sleep, you know? So a lot of that was because you and I had a lot of conversations about sleep and trying to be s consistent as possible with it.”

Coach Justin: “I always give the credit to the client! I can sit here and tell you to do whatever, but you have to do it. It’s so crazy you know, whether it’s shift workers or whether it’s really just anybody, sleep is one of those things most people just take for granted and the reality of it is people come to us and they’re like what supplements should I take and they’re over here sleeping five hours a night. t’s obviously way harder when your a shift worker. But, if it’s your reality then I have to help you navigate through this to the best of my ability. Truly understanding and learning how to listen to your body right and not feeling guilty about it is a perfect example of prioritizing recovery especially around times where you know that your body is really getting stressed from work or a number of other things in your life that could be going on. What are your tips for the other firefighters or shift workers out there.? And again, guys, these are just tips like Evan doesn’t have it figured out 100% perfect, but what’s helped you? What’s your night routine?”

Evan: “I try to get rid of all the ambient light in my in my room. I used to fall asleep with my TV on in my room, but I stopped doing that. I have little lights, like a little blue or red light in my room and I’ve covered that up so that it’s pretty much pitch black in my room. This really helps me stay asleep. I also have pretty dark curtains, so there’s just a little bit of light that comes in whenever it’s time for me to wake up. Normally I don’t have a problem going to sleep, you know, it’s more of like in the middle of the night kind of deal, but i’ve been watching my water intake so that i’m not waking up in the middle of the night to use the restroom. There’s that and sometimes if I do find myself like restless, I’ll read just a few pages before bed and then usually that gets me pretty sleepy and then yeah, lights out.”

Coach Justin: “Great tips man! Cool, so as we kind of transition, I want to dive into that second point that you made, which is, you know the kitchen of the fire station or the break room at the hospital or you know whatever, right? Everybody brings you all things all the time, right? Which is awesome, I mean it’s great, but sometimes maybe it can be a challenge to navigate through these situations. So from a mindset standpoint, how do you navigate through the holidays and people bringing up cookies, cakes and desserts all the time? What was your approach maybe before and like what’s your approach now?”

Evan: “I guess before you and I started working together, I really didn’t care. Sure why not? You know, a little ice cream ain’t gonna hurt anybody or you know there’s a lady who brings Costco trays of assorted cookies. They’re good and we would make jokes like make sure you eat the oatmeal cookies because they’re more healthy for you. We’ll make little jokes like that. People do bring a lot of stuff up there, but I started to realize I can’t really be eating like that all the time. It just doesn’t line up with our goals. I wrote down a goal back in January to minimize this stuff and we’re trying to get back on track with reducing refined sugar. I also started meal prepping a lot at home. This has been a game changer as i’m eating a lot more vegetables and just eating a lot of healthier overall. Since making these changes, my cholesterol has improved significantly over the last six months, dropping ~50 points. I had to learn to make my nutrition a priority and it has truly payed off. At first I was even getting made fun of for these “non manly” changes I was making, but now my fellow firefighters are asking for help! There’s a lot of research coming out right now about the fact that 60-70% of all firefighters are going to get cancer in some form or another. I’m taking the steps now to set up healthy habits so that when I’m getting close to the end of my career, I’m able to enjoy my retirement rather than going through chemo or diabetes. With all the information we have these days, the thought is always on my mind that hey, if I wanna have a long healthy sustaining life, I’m gonna make tough choices now that hopefully will pay off in the long run.”

Coach Justin: “Oh man, I love that dude! I think that’s the realization everybody gets to at some point you know? But it it really is one of those situations where you have to be ready to change. Nothing anyone says or does is going to make you change unless you’re truly ready. You have one shot, one body, one opportunity at this life! You know the way we treat our body is really a representation of our happiness and you know, but that’s a whole another topic we could dive into. But yeah man, I love those words. So what about the mindset piece? A lot of people have a really tough time with the peer pressure and you were getting made fun of, they were just joking with you, but a lot of people can’t handle that.”

Evan: “I think for me knowing your why! For me, initially it was that my cholesterol levels were high. I’ve been in pretty good shape for most of my life, I played high school sports, I do crossfit, etc. but i’m 30 years old and the doctor wants to put me on high cholesterol medicine. I said, that’s ridiculous. He said, hey, you know, your cholesterol levels are up, you know we’re gonna need to put you on medicine. I pretty much said F that, I mean, I was like, no, I’m not doing that, I’m 30 years old. I’m in generally good health you know and I was like, no, this is not happening and that’s when I reached out to you and you helped me solve my problem without medication. I want to be able to take care of my body so that at the end of my career, I can walk away and be able to age with dignity. I want to be in great health, I want to be able to go enjoy my retirement, enjoy the life I have with my family, my kids, and my grandkids. Setting those goals and not just thinking of the short term but thinking long term of the consequences of what you’re doing today versus what’s gonna happen in 10, 15, 20, 30 years from now. I guess my mindset was you just gotta do it like you got to prioritize it if it’s really truly important to you. For me, when I write things down, I tend to stick to it more so you know I I write stuff on my mirror and my bathroom to remind myself. I’m conscious when I go eat out, I try to make healthy decisions. I consciously make decisions that are you bringing me closer towards that end goal. I have no problem shutting alcohol down, like it’s bad like for my sleep, I usually wake up, I’m cramping and all dehydrated and I feel like crap the next day. It’s cool to socialize, but I don’t necessarily need alcohol. For me, it’s just always keeping that in game in mind, always keeping those goals top of mind and reminding myself that I don’t want to be that guy at the end of his career with diabetes, heart problems, etc.”

Coach Justin: “I love that dude. I think that’s extremely powerful and I think it’s just great perspective for the listeners! Everyone knows my story and kind of like that rock bottom moment that really made me wake up and realize I have one opportunity at life. So do you think that this shift would have happened for you if you wouldn’t had gone and seen the doctor and do you think that maybe it would have just happened later when something finally happened? Like do you feel like that was kind of like your eye opening moment?”

Evan: “I think it was definitely an eye opener. Our department does annual checkups including a stress test, body comp, etc. and I do an annual physical with my primary care doctor. I think it would have eventually came up, but i’m not sure it would have been as big of an impact had it happened later because I was 30 and I was like man, I’m young.”

Coach Justin: “I’m a big believer that sometimes we just have to get woke up, for me it happened at 18 years old, for some people, it never happens. I think like putting yourself in an uncomfortable position and like not being afraid to like reach out for help is admirable. Being vulnerable and realizing that everybody needs a coach and can get value out of having one. So dude, I’ve got a lot of value out of this and I think the listeners and viewers will too. One final question for you because I think this is super powerful for those that are in your same field, can you talk a little bit on the importance of leading from the front as a firefighter at your firehouse in terms of everything like the nutrition and the lifestyle, the working out like leading from the front and you know, eventually at some point hoping and praying that people follow your lead?

Evan: I think in my field specifically it’s probably more challenging than others. Fire departments are very much seniority based. How long have you been here? You know your rank? Things like that and with me, you know, I’ve been in my department a little over two years. At our department, we’ve done a really good job here since I’ve been hired on and probably since before I started about making health important. We just recently put in a really nice weight room. We wrote a grant to receive some money to help with that and we started doing annual physical agility tests so that our guys are getting better. As a low man, as a young guy in the department, I just make suggestions and the big thing is like not getting discouraged whenever your suggestion doesn’t happen. There’s a lot of different things involved, like can we fit it into our training schedule this month? You’re definitely fighting the idea of well this is the way we’ve done things for a long time. You have to just be the example so while yes you do get made fun of from time to time you just have to take charge. We encourage all of our guys to work out at the station, but sometimes that’s not possible. If you’re busy all day, you’re gonna be in there for like five minutes and there have been days like, I’ve been working out and it sucks you’re working out, you got a good pump going on or you got a good sweat going and then boom, you got to go on and call, well you come back and then you do like another set or two, boom, you got to go to another call, then you come back and you do a couple more sets boom, you got to go to it and it sucks, it’s frustrating. I also make sure that the two days that I’m off, I’m getting it in. I just try to stay active, because that’s important to me. We try to make healthy choices and and just do the best that we can, maybe eventually down the road I can be in a leadership position and start having more of a voice. I just try to do it with little things, like suggesting healthy meals if I’m in control of going to the store, buying vegetables, whether the rest of the crew likes it or not. In a couple of years maybe I can put some more effort into bringing some more tools into the department, but that’s how I can be proactive right now. I can make suggestions, you know, talk to those that are in charge and see how they feel maybe dropping a suggestion, but at the end of the day you know, just trying to lead the best you can do is probably lead by doing. Bringing food from home and doing that’s probably the best way and then just, you know, be an example in general.”

Coach Justin: “That’s awesome man. Well dude, Evan, thank you so much! I really appreciate you taking the time today and hopefully other firefighters and shift workers out there that watch this get some value out of this. I think the biggest takeaway from me from this whole thing is, you know, just make sure that you take that second to create the awareness for yourself so you can sense what you’re currently doing in life, especially if you don’t feel good or like you don’t have energy or whatever. What are those low hanging fruit, what are those habits that you’re consistently doing that are not moving you forward and really, you know, taking a toll on you and start taking action. But at the same time, just realize that you’re a product of your environment. Don’t beat yourself up trying to be perfect. I think if we can slowly but surely start to make better lifestyle habits, like one thing at a time, don’t do the all or nothing method. Like just literally pick your biggest issue, start there and start trying to create consistency in improving that habit. Surround yourself with people that are encouraging and are pushing you to be the best version of yourself is, is really, really important.”

Evan: “Thanks Justin, I really appreciate it!”

Coach Justin: “Hey man, like I always say, you’re the one putting in the work. I can be the smartest person in the world, I can give you the perfect plan, but it truly is about you taking action and so I commend you for that. Evan, thank you so much, my man, it was a great episode and I really appreciate you coming on the show.”