I think people feel constant pressure to perform more and better — as parents, professionals, individuals, partners — because we’re a country of doers and achievers. But this trait can be as daunting as it is inspirational. We can be our own worst enemies, worrying that the grass might be greener elsewhere, or questioning whether there is more we can do. Also, we underestimate the impacts of poor physical and mental health on our happiness. We have a huge opportunity to exploit our endorphins (if you’ll allow me poetic license here) to shift that ranking, by focusing on the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of happiness, performance, and success.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Apgar. Sarah is the Founder and CEO of FitFighter; Army Veteran, volunteer firefighter, fitness professional, and mom of two girls. In the military, she deployed with the 52nd Engineer Battalion in 2003 to support the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, Iraq. FitFighter’s equipment and circuit training serves individual consumers and institutions such as the FDNY Fire Training Academy and Fit Body Boot Camps. Sarah speaks around the country on firefighter-inspired fitness and practicing readiness.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I left the Army, I missed the sense of community and camaraderie. When my family and I moved to the New York region after graduate school, I drove past an Open House at the Halesite Fire Department in Huntington, Long Island. I stopped in, happened to meet the Fire Chief himself, and lingered enough to sense the community for which I had been longing. I joined the following week and trained as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and volunteer firefighter. While fascinated by fire ground activities and movements, I noticed there wasn’t standardized fitness training in the fire service, and began filling firehose with unique material to mimic the feeling of a pressurized hose. Members experimented with the hoses as gym weights and resistance attachments, for intervals, lifting, bursting, and more. I wanted a premier training outfit to test the concept, and with the support of a colleague pitched the Fitness Director at the FDNY Fire Academy on Randall’s Island. Within five minutes, we were in the functional fitness area with the instructor team playing with ideas and movements. Three weeks later, the Academy began using FitFighter hoses for unit training on their pad (my term for the giant asphalt parking lot where 150 candidates train). We had built something special, and FitFighter was born. When Huntington Fit Body Boot Camps adopted our hoses for their workouts and ABC News profiled the product and training, we started to serve gyms and clients outside the first responder community. I look forward to continuing to spread firefighter-inspired fitness around the world.
What does it mean for you to live “on purpose”? Can you explain? How can one achieve that?
For me, this means using my energy to make someone’s life better that day. My superpower is intrinsic optimism. I never used to think this was unusual, but get reminded almost every day that it’s a gift. I walk into the grocery store and people pause to ask what happened that morning because I look so happy. That response to my positivity gives me boundless energy to keep moving. Everyone has a gift like that, their own superpower, unique to them. Surfacing that strength, asking others to help you find it, embracing what it is, and deploying it every day to make the world a little better, is one way among many to create purpose.
Do you have an example or story in your own life of how your pain helped to guide you to finding your life’s purpose?
I lost my youngest soldier on December 16, 2003 while deployed as a platoon leader in Iraq. I now have to live wondering whether my decisions as a leader affected that outcome, but also constantly working to honor his memory. My work with FitFighter, my endeavor to raise my girls into two strong women, and my commitment to helping people be as healthy and ready as possible for the demands of their lives; all spring from that painful experience and lifelong effort.
The United States is currently rated at #18 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low?
I think people feel constant pressure to perform more and better — as parents, professionals, individuals, partners — because we’re a country of doers and achievers. But this trait can be as daunting as it is inspirational. We can be our own worst enemies, worrying that the grass might be greener elsewhere, or questioning whether there is more we can do. Also, we underestimate the impacts of poor physical and mental health on our happiness. We have a huge opportunity to exploit our endorphins (if you’ll allow me poetic license here) to shift that ranking, by focusing on the physical, mental, and emotional aspects of happiness, performance, and success. I can vouch for this, having fallen off an emotional cliff with postpartum depression following the birth of my second daughter. Suddenly, though a startup executive and mom of two babies with a surgeon spouse, I felt I couldn’t play any of those roles well. I was failing at everything. To reset, I had to focus on my fitness, mindset, and emotional awareness. When I began sharing that experience, the floodgates opened for others to do the same. Fortunately, there are resources now to support people going through these challenges, not to mention less stigma attached to openly discussing them.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Starting in 2019, we are launching an annual award for Excellence in Fitness Leadership for the national First Responder community. I am grateful for the chance to give a modest financial award to honor individual first responders who are having a positive impact on readiness. The goal of the award, given in collaboration with the First Responder Center for Excellence, is to scale existing programs with promising results to more departments. I hope that small gestures like these, and increasing attention to physical, mental, and emotional support for first responders, and the general public, will continue to promote long term health.
What are your 6 strategies to help you face your day with exuberance, “Joie De Vivre” and a “ravenous thirst for life”? Can you please give a story or example for each?
I love the spirit of this, because there may be some folks out there who can have the best day ever everyday, but most of us have to temper that expectation. Here are some ideas, most of them, I think, modest and mundane.
1. Define a golden ticket moment (yes — like Charlie!) My top strategy for facing your day with gusto is to slice it up into moments, and make one of them that day’s big one. Your day is just a mash up of moments. You deliberately create some, and simply collide with others. Either way, by actively pausing to honor a moment, you give the day a purpose. This morning I successfully filmed a Yankee Doodle gallop in the living room carrying both of my girls so my husband could see it later (he leaves daily at the crack of dawn). Those toddler giggles are cemented in my eardrum. That was the golden ticket moment for today.
2. Choose three random people to smile at. A growing body of research suggests that the simple act of smiling releases chemicals in your brain that make you happy. I would go a step further: smiling at someone random, who might return a nod, will energize you and prompt you to smile again, or maybe even say howdy. And the science doesn’t end there! Increased immunity, lower blood pressure — this is a long term play.
3. Do an activity for 20 minutes for which you want to give up sleep. This is a trick answer, because if you don’t have an activity that satisfies, then just sleep an extra 20 minutes (ha). But I bet you do (social media doesn’t count). For me, making banana bread, strumming the guitar, talking to my brothers on the phone, or watching a rerun of SVU are things I would do instead of sleep and be psyched.
4. Give or gift something away. Dopamine, one of the “happiness chemicals”, gets released in the brain when you give someone a gift or drop a box at Salvation Army. If you’re like most casual hoarders, chances are you can do some form of this every day for the next month and still have plenty left. Give it a shot every morning for a week — you’ll likely have a better day and be hooked!
5. Cut your toddler’s nails (or equivalent). For those who aren’t Type A goal-setters, mowing down daily success after success, choosing simple goals for days where you feel like burying your head in the sand is a good strategy. Pick goals that feel good and that you know you can achieve. For example, successfully clipping my girls’ nails gives me surprising satisfaction (anyone with a toddler is nodding). I recently started taking guitar lessons, and in my 20 minutes of fumbling last night finally got the bridge in Tom Petty’s Wildflowers. I felt like Styx and went to bed content.
6. Learn one new fact, and then tell someone about it. I recently bookmarked the NYT Science Times section because I got jaded on Top Stories headlines. I wandered around for weeks telling people about such feats as new devices for catching jellyfish uninjured. Learning new things, whether it be about a person or a topic, is exhilarating. Teaching someone else about it feels even better.
I’d be lying if I claimed to do all of the above every day, but I’d say I bat half and can vouch for an infusion of energy and gumption. Now more than ever, in the daily rat race, building optimism with simple tactics is critical to fulfillment and perspective.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that most inspired you to live with a thirst for life?
Yes! A huge resource for me is music. I’m an 80s Rock-n-Roll junkie. My two year old daughter can tell you that my favorite band is Van Halen. Loudly played monster ballads like Time for me to Fly (REO Speedwagon) pick me up any day. Right Now (Van Halen), Best of Times (Styx), and Under Pressure (Queen) are other sure bets. On Podcasts, How I Built This by Guy Raz offers a balanced window into both the storybook joys and harrowing pitfalls of entrepreneurship. On books, favorites include One Simple Idea by Mitch Horowitz on the historical evidence for positive thinking yielding success; Climb by Anatoli Boukreev, a humbling account of a 1996 Mt. Everest ascent; and The Long Run by Matt Long, FitFighter brand ambassador and famous firefighter returned from the brink of death to be an Ironman triathlete.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” that relates to having a Joie De Vivre? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Ay! There are so many great ones, and I have an entire scrapbook filled with them that my dad gave me when I was 12. I will share the following: A place belongs to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he really makes it in his image. Joan Didion, b. 1934. To me this quotation is about ownership — the intensity with which we must own our lives and what happens to us.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m focused on developing strong young women. After all, I’m now raising two of them. I’ve become involved with United Womens Firefighters, which trains and supports women entering the fire service. I recently gave a talk to my daughter’s elementary school around Veteran’s Day on life as a soldier, in part so that the children could see and hear a female in uniform. Exposure to women in men-heavy professions is critical for young girls. They are so impressionable early on, and will build their world views from toddlerhood. Finally, we need to give all young people opportunities to develop strength, power, and balance, given the lifelong importance of these qualities to overall physical and mental health.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Sure, I’ll shout from the rooftops! Heading into 2019, I am starting a movement in Practicing Readiness. This means a holistic commitment not just to physical fitness, but to emotional competence and mental health — equally important to happiness and success but under-emphasized. I have been researching, interviewing, and writing on this topic as it relates to our philosophy and focus at FitFighter, but would like to broaden my message and to expand access to resources. We have a big opportunity to be not just fit, but ready, for big and unexpected challenges, the daily grind, and the long term.
Thank you so much for joining us!