The two-dozen athletes gathered at 802 CrossFit in Essex Junction were not dressed in typical workout attire last Friday afternoon.
Participants fastened inflated balloons to headbands and zipped up colored jumpsuits. Others donned superhero capes and masks, posing for photos before they began a grueling 7-minute burpee challenge, a combined push-up, squat, jumping movement.
These outfits were all sported in the name of the Michael Zemanek Foundation that supports police officers and their families after catastrophic incidents.
A sheriff’s deputy killed in an interstate crash, Zemanek’s cause hits close to home for 802 CrossFit, as more than 30 percent of the gym’s members work for a police department, rescue or military organization.
Participants are in the middle of a six-week challenge, earning points for their team – bonus ones for creative get-ups and team spirit.
“We knew our members would be willing to help, but we never imagined this kind of dedication,” said Sara Franco, who owns the gym with husband, Tarken Chase.
CrossFit wasn’t developed for cops, but because the program promotes overall fitness, it’s good for law enforcement and military personnel who never know what the day brings, Franco said.
There are more than 13,000 CrossFit affiliates worldwide – five in Vermont alone, according to CrossFit’s website. Daily workouts are done with minimal equipment and emphasize “functional movements” – actions that might be completed in everyday life.
“They might have to drag a body. OK, we do tire pulls here,” Franco said. “They might have to suddenly chase after somebody, so we do explosive sprints.”
Colchester police Cpl. Jaime Bressler joined 802 CrossFit last October following a fellow officer’s recommendation. A CrossFit workout better simulates typical police activity, she said.
“You pick up heavy stuff and put it down and do short bursts of something really heavy or hard,” Bressler said. “That’s what we do all the time [at work]. You drive in the car for four hours, and then you have to get out and chase somebody.”
Though she was intrigued by CrossFit’s physical benefits, Bressler said she ultimately switched from a regular gym in search of a psychological release.
“I had a lot going on in my personal life and was having a difficult time focusing and functioning at work. I saw a decrease in my mental wellbeing and probably some depression setting in,” Bressler said. “I couldn’t get up and go to the gym even though I knew it would make me feel better.”
Now, Bressler goes to 802 CrossFit after work and no longer enjoys working out alone.
“Even if you’re on opposite teams or competing against each other, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “Everyone is cheering you on and trying to help push you to your limits.”
Bressler’s success story is one of many, according to licensed therapist Sonny Provetto.
After 10 years as a police officer in Burlington and with Vermont State Police, Provetto now works as a psychological consultant for the Vt. Department of Children and Families, the Internet Crimes Against Children taskforce and for police officers in Colchester, Burlington and South Burlington.
Provetto sees around 25 clients per week struggling with stress or trauma and recommends CrossFit as a coping mechanism every day.
“The first question I ask people who come to see me is, ‘Tell me what you do for exercise,’” he said. “Exercise fights depression; it fights anxiety. It’s the complete opposite of a stress response.”
Provetto said police officers need outlets for the emotions they harbor, and sometimes, that outlet isn’t healthy. Alcohol dependence and frequent displays of aggression are often seen in the policing community, he said.
“If you don’t manage your stress, it’s going to leak out somewhere – either at home or on the job,” Provetto said.
Affiliates pay to bear the CrossFit name but have autonomy over programming. Franco and Chase frequently donate to policing charities and offer membership discounts to police officers. A flag with a thin blue line commemorating fallen officers hangs from the ceiling.
“When you support what people do every day, especially in this climate when police officers are often looked at as thugs and killers,” Provetto said. “That’s so important.”
Provetto said gym members often check in after a few missed workouts, important for those struggling with trauma or depression.
“One of the obstacles with PTSD is how to integrate yourself back into an environment and still feel safe,” Provetto said. “And here, everybody is all dressed up, they’re yelling, they’re supporting each other.”
Sometimes that support is officer to officer. Franco said there’s a large concentration of Colchester police officers who work out together.
“They all trash talk each other,” Franco said, laughing. “But at the end of the day, they’re cheering each other on and asking each other what their times were at work the next day.”
Bressler said the camaraderie often shows in playful taunts but also comes through in more serious ways.
“I know another officer [at CrossFit] was going through a tough time personally, just like I was,” Bressler said. “We can connect because of that. We know we’re on the same page.”
Provetto thinks exercise should be integrated into police work. Some departments provide officers an hour to work out on duty.
It’s a suggestion Bressler says Colchester PD is seriously considering, though concerns about how to fairly compensate day and night-shift workers have complicated matters.
In the meantime, Provetto encourages all officers to explore the benefits of social exercise.
“You really walk out of here feeling better about yourself,” he said. “Exercise resets everything.”