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Class lifts first responders' stress

BY LAUREL BLACK lblack@paducahsun.com

It didn't resemble a typical group fitness class.

Participants at the first Operation Warrior Restore class on Wednesday didn't sweat their way through cardio moves. No one swung kettle bells or held complicated yoga poses.

Instead, the students started with simple neck circles. Over the next 40 minutes, fitness instructor Eric Romanak led the four participants through a series of simple movements, such as hip circles and leg swings, designed to take their bodies through every possible range of motion.

"I don't think any workout classes focus on (this type of exercise)," Romanak said. "I think the common draws to most workout classes are to sweat, burn calories, get your heart rate up at any cost."

Romanak's class, by contrast, aims to enhance functional strength and neutralize the effects of stress on the bodies of people who need it most - law enforcement officers, first responders and active or retired military personnel.

Romanak said he practices jiu-jitsu alongside several law enforcement officers, and that his conversations with them highlighted the need for such a class in Paducah. An admiration for these workers, who put their physical and mental health on the line in the service of others, prompted him to offer the four-week class for free.

While Romanak is not one of these workers, he said he can relate to them.

"I understand stress from my own personal life stress. But also as a combat athlete, I know what it does to my body, so I can only imagine what it can do to people who put themselves at such a psychological and physical risk," said Romanak, who has practiced martial arts for eight years.

"I have a tool set that is very beneficial to me, so it's the least I can do to put it back out there," he said.  

During the class, Romanak showed students what he says is a typical stress-related posture, as well as ways to counteract it.

He said the body adopts hunched shoulders, a rounded back and a defensive stance not only when it prepares for an attack, but even during the most common of activities: sitting.

The everyday act of sitting in a chair or behind the wheel of a car reinforces the posture and can add to feelings of stress, Romanak says. This means that not even patrol officers or others who work at desks are immune to tension.

Class participant Justin Rundles, 32, said that office work represents a large portion of his duties as a detective with the Paducah Police Department. As a member of a narcotics unit, Rundles also finds himself in tense situations.

"There is quite a bit of stress just from the daily grind," he said. "You see people at their worst, not at their best, and dealing with that constantly every day, it wears on your body. It wears on your mind."

He said emergency workers and law enforcement officers spend more time than most in a state of elevated awareness - what he called a red area - and have only a short time to decompress before they return to the job. The mental and emotional effort often proves more taxing than the physical, Rundles added.

"This helps," he said of the class. "It helps with the emotional aspect, with the spiritual aspect, and the physical."

For physically active students such as Rundles, who also practices jiu-jitsu and is training for a marathon, the movements Romanak teaches can help recover from a tough workout.

But the trainer says he works with all types of bodies, from couch potatoes to the elderly, through his personal training business, Seva Fitness. A certified yoga instructor, Romanak takes what he says is a common saying in yoga - "You're only as young as your connective tissue" - to heart.

That's the message he gave to students on Wednesday. As simple as it is, he says, it should help alleviate their stress and keep them functioning for years to come.

"It can add literally years of reduced pain and increased functionality to their lives, just (learning) little habits we don't teach anymore in our culture," he said.

The class is held at 5:30 p.m. every Wednesday in January at the Living Arts Center, 627 Broadway. For more information on Operation Warrior Restore or Seva Fitness, visit sevafitness.com or email Romanak at Eric@sevafit.com.

Contact Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641, or follow @LaurelFBlack on Twitter.

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