Fitness at Forefront: Niigata Firefighters Fight Age with Exercise

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Firefighters pedal on stationary bikes in Tsubame, Niigata Prefecture.

NIIGATA — A fire department headquarters in Niigata Prefecture has launched a strength training program aimed at employees aged 50 and above, seeking to keep them fighting on the frontlines of disasters and emergency response even after they turn 60. This unique initiative, one of the first of its kind in the country, follows amendments to the Local Public Service Law implemented in April, which will gradually raise the retirement age of local government employees to 65. The age will be raised by one year every two years from fiscal 2023 to fiscal 2031.

In May, 11 firefighters from the headquarters, which has jurisdiction over Niigata City-neighbors Tsubame and Yahiko, were seen pedaling away on stationary bikes and toning their arms and legs on other equipment at a sports facility in Tsubame. At a certain point, one of the men panted out, “This is tough …”

The fire department headquarters started the training as part of its health promotion program in May. Hitoshi Hatta, 56, chief of Yahiko Fire Station and a participant in the program, has been focusing on jogging, primarily on his days off. “I’ve been feeling my physical strength wane. As I have back pain, I want to maintain my strength with a regimen that suits me,” he said. Kazuaki Yamada, 55, who as head of the prevention division mainly works at his desk, expressed anxiety about whether his body would be able to keep up if he had to return to the field.

The training lasts for more than two hours per session, and target employees are supposed to complete at least one session per week. Based on the results of physical tests and strength measurements, individual workout plans are created and goals are set, such as “reducing body fat through exercise and a regular diet [avoiding overeating and excessive drinking].”

As of April 1, there were 46 employees over the age of 50 at the headquarters. By fiscal 2031, when the retirement age is set to be 65, it is projected that about 20% of the staff will be over 60 and more than half will be over 50, making the senior workforce an indispensable resource.

According to the Fire and Disaster Management Agency, such efforts targeting those over 60 are rare nationwide.

Ryuji Sasazaki, 52, who is in charge of the health program, emphasizes the significance of keeping senior staff physically fit. “Not only does it contribute to protecting the lives of residents, but it also directly impacts the health and happiness of the staff members themselves,” he said. Sasazaki, too, is keeping fit, battling it out with the workout machines.