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Departmental Gyms Become Fitness Rooms

Richard Weinblatt

Final Phase in a Holistic Fitness Approach

The nation’s interest in fitness has not gone unnoticed by law enforcement administrators. Initially many managers focused on weightlifting, but the gym phase is the final step in a holistic fitness program.

“Fitness makes sense for the officers, their employers and the public,” said Elizabeth Bondurant, a lieutenant with the Plainsboro (N.J.) Police Department who stressed the need for a departmentally promulgated fitness push.

According to Roger D. Reynolds, associate director of the Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, “We are purists in our approach to law enforcement fitness.”

Reynolds has been conducting fitness training for law enforcement and military personnel since the early 1970s. “Our theory has been to get a good person in a leadership role, train that person and have them bring the fitness philosophy back to the department,” he said.

The failure rate hovers at 80 to 90 percent as officers lose interest when an agency does little more than installing a gym, he said. “The 15 to 20 percent who stick with it after the gym is put in are the same ones who worked out beforehand.”

The Cooper Institute aims to get past what Reynolds described as the “ready, fire, aim” fitness philosophy employed by some departmental gym aspirants. The gym becomes the tangible symbol that the manager sets up without the seemingly invisible substance that makes the fitness program a long-term success.

Benefits of Fitness

The benefits of implementing a fitness program in conjunction with the creation of a gym are well known.

“Out of shape officers are prone to work related injuries, sick time and early retirement,” Bondurant said. “The stresses of the job affect an officer’s personal and professional life.”

“We zeroed in on specific areas that are problems for officers such as back problems. The inclusion of exercises and equipment geared towards those problems underscores our proactive response,” said South Brunswick Township’s (NJ) Captain Frederick A. Thompson.

Tactically minded law enforcement executives and officers point to enhanced officer safety benefits accrued from having physically fit personnel.

Trainer Certification

Many departments report that the impetus for creating a departmental gym comes from fitness oriented officers. The South Brunswick Township department sent two officers, Ed George and Kevin Hughes, to a fitness and conditioning trainer certification course presented by the Institute of Aerobics Research at the New Jersey State Police Academy at Sea Girt, N.J.

“We pursued a holistic approach to fitness and health, and I advise other departments to do the same,” said Bondurant, who holds a B.S. degree in health and physical education and a master’s degree in criminal justice. She spearheaded the Plainsboro fitness push and the department is now aligned with Fit Force’s philosophies and standards.

The other end of the country is no different from the East Coast concerning its acquisition of fitness trainer certifications en route to a departmental gym.

“Six or eight years ago, one of our deputies, Manuel Trujillo, researched the topic and went for his physical fitness trainer certification. He helped design our departmental gym,” Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Department Major Ron Madrid said.

Cooper Institute’s Reynolds, who holds a master’s degree in exercise physiology, said his organization has a trainer certification course geared specifically to law enforcement. Approximately 500 officers took the 40-hour “Physical Fitness Specialist” course last year. Thousands of officers have garnered the established Coopers certification that is offered in conjunction with the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).

Reynolds said most of their trainer certification forays have been to state academy training facilities, including those in Arizona, Florida and Idaho. A certification course is a necessary component in creating a fitness leader and an environment conducive to physical fitness training, he stressed.

Holistic Approach

Reynolds said many agencies are recognizing the need to expand beyond the “metal head” gyms of yesteryear. He eschews the use of what he terms “pig metal” and proffers a sophisticated integrated approach. The new name of the gym is fitness room.

“There is a movement towards functional fitness that can follow an officer throughout his career. Departments have added more cardio-vascular stations such as treadmills,” Reynolds said. It’s a paradigm shift towards “lifestyle management.”

Thompson spoke of changes to the gym on the department headquarters’ second floor. “Our original equipment was mostly free weights, benches and dumbbells. The gym has evolved into a combination of the original with Universal equipment, abdomen and back machine, Smith machine, life cycle, Stairmaster, Nordic Track and treadmill,” he said.

Likewise, Major Madrid detailed Santa Fe County’s addition of cardio equipment to its impressive array of professional free weights and Paramount equipment. “We added track masters and a lifecycle to address cardio-vascular workout needs,” he said.

The Sheriff’s Department has taken the inclusiveness philosophy a step further by sharing its gym facilities with the district attorney’s office, which helps the two organizations’ working relationship.

The Fitness Room

Fitness rooms are as varied as the agencies that house them. Departments need to first figure out what the mission of the fitness program is and then make it consistent with the philosophy of the department.

“Officers should have options in the fitness room. For example, he or she may want to opt between free weights and gravity (push-ups and sit-ups). If they understand the principles behind fitness training, then the route becomes clear,” Reynolds said. He stressed that the designated area should be referred to as the fitness room, not weight room.

Reynolds conducts training classes across the nation for officers who have many different levels and types of fitness rooms at their disposal. The applicability of training principles and testing standards are what all of them have in common.

Money for the Equipment

“We financed our gym with around $20,000 confiscated from defendants as a result of proceeds from illicit activities,” Thompson said of the South Brunswick Township fitness room, which has a fairly impressive mixture of equipment. The room is adorned with fitness charts on the walls, cable television and a CD player.

“In 1994 we got the attention of one of our county commissioners and $40,000 was allocated in the budget,” said Santa Fe County’s Madrid. He said that the gym area is approximately 50 feet long and 20 feet wide and has an AM/FM stereo CD player.

Plainsboro took a more modest approach. The department, with only 31 sworn officers, had to compile resources from several sources to piece together its fitness room.

“A local gym went out of business and donated some padded floor mats and mirrors. The PBA also kicked in multiple dumbbells from 20s up to 110 pounds,” Bondurant said. The department spent around $500 for additional mirrors.

Through such varied routes, the agency now has a respectable room outfitted with modified Universal and stations for seated row, lat pull down, flat and incline bench, triceps, seated row and leg press machine.


In the wake of legal challenges, some agencies have moved away from on-going mandatory fitness testing to one that is incentive-based. This encourages use of the gym.

“Deputies are given time to work out during their meal break, at the shift commander’s discretion. Deputies assigned to SWAT are granted three hours per week on topof their lunch hour,” Madrid said.

In a similar vein, Thompson described South Brunswick’s approach with the availability of a 45-minute meal break usable with the shift commander’s approval. He said that the officer is subject to recall although that rarely happens.

South Brunswick also has a voluntary test once a year; with higher results garnering as much as 16 comp hours for fitness performance.

“Paramedics are present during the test and they assist by checking blood pressure, resting pulse, pulse rate following the step test, and pulse rate recovery of each candidate. The test includes mile and a half run or walk, bench press, sit-ups, and flexibility,” Thompson said.

The Plainsboro department has had a testing program in place since 1978. Bondurant said the township pays for an annual physical “worth a couple hundred dollars.” Those who score at a high percentile are given a bonus of $200 to $300.

“The test we use, from Fit Force and Dr. Thomas Collingwood, has four components. The first is the mile and a half run or alternate one-mile walk during which we look at the volume of oxygen. We also have timed sit-ups, timed pushups and sit and reach for flexibility,” she said.


As with any program, there are bound to be problems and challenges to overcome. Thompson’s advice to managers contemplating a fitness program and corresponding fitness room is to have clear policies in place.

“Officers must follow manufacturers’ instructions and have a training partner present at all times. We also require them to notify communications when they start working out and when they have completed using the room,” he said.

Madrid said users of the Santa Fe gym have to sign in and out on a clipboard located on the wall next to a list of simple gym rules.

“You have to watch for abuse of equipment. Our program has worked out well, although in the beginning we lost a couple of bars,” he said. He added that personnel using the room are required to sign a liability waiver first. Liability is a recurring theme in police management, and fitness rooms are no haven from that specter.

“The best approach is prevention. We tie the fitness program into an annual medical exam offered by the Township’s physician. We adhere to safety procedures for the use of the equipment,” Thompson said.

Plainsboro allows use of the room only when officers are off duty and they do so at their own risk. The agency’s concern is that an on duty injury will lead to a workman’s comp situation.

The Cooper Institute’s Reynolds said that a bona fide fitness trainer certification alleviates a bit of the liability concern. The knowledge that trainers take back to their respective agencies prevents many of the problems and sets the officers on a path of holistic health.

Law enforcement administrators have realized the inherent value in having personnel that are mentally and physically at their peak. Correspondingly, those drab rooms with a few metal weight plates have found new life as centers for fitness and personal improvement.

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