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Shift work, JRFT and women's health: an expert's guide

7 March, 2022

British Transport
Police Federation
March 7, 2022

Shift work, JRFT and women's health: an expert's guide

The Job-Related Fitness Test (JRFT) and the menopause are amongst the issues female officers raise most frequently with Fed Reps. In fact, they're two of the most common topics raised across the board, as members seek advice for themselves and their colleagues, and guidance on supporting the officers and staff they supervise.

While we can offer a range of support and representation for our members, we're most of us not fitness and wellbeing experts. However, former BTP officer turned personal trainer, Grace Cowan is. Known as The Shift Worker's Coach she supports emergency service workers to improve their fitness, health and wellbeing.

Ahead of International Women's Day, we caught up with Grace to get her take on some of our female colleagues' worries. She also shared sound advice for all members who are finding it hard to live a healthy lifestyle around their shifts.

"The main things I focus on with my females is their monthly cycle and hormone changes," Grace told us.

"In the follicular phase there are a lot of different things that you can accomplish with your training. You hold less water, you're happier in general and you can actually train harder in that phase. When you look at the luteal phase, where progesterone is higher, you do hold more water, you do feel tired all the time, you do feel grumpy. The kind of things I discuss with my clients is to not beat yourself up in that period of your cycle. It's just about moving your body in a way that feels good for you.

"When it comes to clients who talk to me about the menopause, I massively encourage strength training. There are three stages of menopause: you've got the peri, the menopause itself, then the post, and you're at high risk of osteoporosis and heart disease in that stage. Ultimately, strength training can prevent that and that's massively underestimated in all these bleep test groups that are on Facebook. I've been added into one of them and I do try my best to debunk a lot of the myths."

The JRFT has been on the Federation and Force's agenda for a long time.

As reported in our latest blog, Chief Constable D'Orsi recognises the limitations of the test, but sadly it is all we have at the moment. Until a new test is designed and agreed the Chief believes as a Force, we need to continue testing officers' standard of fitness. Having experienced the test herself several times, Grace understands her former colleagues' concerns about preparing for it. She also recognises that for some people, it's an issue of confidence rather than competence.

Grace said: "One of the biggest things I hear in respect of the fitness test is the fear of failing in front of colleagues. Some officers are older, they've been in the job quite a while, some of them might be inspectors, some of them might not be in an active role as such. So, for them to go and do it, it's even more daunting. They need to be fit for duty, they need to uphold their leadership, and for them to fail in front of all these officers that are looking up to them... a lot of the time that is the biggest thing for them. For women dealing with the hormones that come along with the menopause and perimenopause, it adds this huge weight on their shoulders.

"There are things you can do in the weeks before the test but ultimately, you need to maintain a good level of fitness throughout the year. Most people get fit to join the job, then they get in the job and the environment controls them. Shift workers are constantly fatigued. It's like, go to work, come home, sleep, eat and repeat. They get caught in a vicious cycle as a result of not looking after themselves.

"They're not hydrated enough, they're not supplementing things like vitamin D3, which nightshift workers massively need because they don't get enough daylight especially in the in the winter months, and then their energy levels are impacted. It's not the fact that they're lazy; they're exhausted."

Grace may be physically fit, strong and motivated now, but that wasn't always the case.

As a child, Grace was overweight. Unlike her gymnast sister, she hated PE and wasn't sporty at all because she struggled with it. This continued through her teens and when Grace went to university the situation got worse. Her lifestyle was very unhealthy, and she fell into a cycle of fad diets and drinks that promised weight loss. Everything changed when Grace began swimming. Rather than struggling with it, she found she enjoyed it and it became something of a turning point.

"I was miserable," Grace said. "I had no confidence. I wanted to become a police officer, but I was holding myself back due to my confidence. I didn't want to live the way that I lived anymore. I made changes, I got myself a trainer and I did get into the police. It was life-changing for me. Fitness literally saved my life."

Alongside her work with BTP, Grace qualified as a fitness coach and began working with her own clients. She was approved for part-time, flexible working but ultimately had to make a decision about her future.

"I was running my business, doing my fitness, and I was a police officer. I needed to go one way or the other with this, because ultimately, I couldn't give my clients 100% and I couldn't give the job 100%. I'm not that kind of person, I didn't want to half-heart something. I thought that if I could take a step back from my role as a police officer in order to help more police officers, then I'm all for it. So that's what I did."

As The Shift Workers Coach, Grace helps fatigued and overwhelmed shift workers to regain their confidence, energy and fitness levels. Being familiar with the challenges, Grace looks at the small changes officers can adopt to make a big difference. She explains:

"I focus on the 1% principle. All it requires is for you to become 1% better each and every single day. Drinking one extra glass of water, that's not too much to ask. Getting an extra 1000 steps, that is not too much to ask. Hitting a protein goal is not too much to ask. If they can focus on these little 1% tasks then they're going to feel fuller for longer and they're not going to want to snack on doughnuts and the rest of the rubbish that's in the office. They're going to feel more hydrated and they're going to have moved their body more, so will have more blood pumping around their system and will feel more energised.

If Grace's story and knowledge has inspired you, check out her 'Turbocharge your shift work' guide which offers advice on improving your sleep and nutrition. You can download the guide here.

Follow Grace on Facebook and Instagramor visit her website for more information.