Farm advice: A focus on farmer fitness

By: Alison Storey


A look at this Rural Bachelor of the Year prompted Alison Storey from Storey Sport to turn her focus on the health of rural industry workers

Pre-screening the medical and injury history of the Rural Bachelor contestants confirmed some of the common health issues surrounding what has long been perceived as one of the most active and physical jobs in this country; that of farming.

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However, a quick trip down the ‘I’ road at Fieldays, past all the bikes, utes, and ATVs, serves as proof that the truth about the physicality of farming is contrary to the perception.

I had the pleasure of talking to some old hands during the course of research, who gladly told me that on a mountainous farm in the old days, shanks pony was the only form of transport that was entirely effective.

As there was usually a cumbersome amount of gear involved, this included several trips back to the shed, so the physical exertion level was at the top end.

In 2017, though, with the aid of a quad bike, a cell phone, and automated milking stations, the amount of actual ‘get your ticker going’ stuff and trips back and forth from the shed is by contrast limited. Throw in electric gate openers so you don’t even have to leave the quad bike and it makes for a concerning picture.

This could theoretically be compared to life in the city with a car, a sit-down office job, and e-mail taking the place of what was in the past walking to work, physical labour-based jobs, and memos that had to be hand delivered to the adjoining office.

Office workers are often highlighted as needing to negate this reduction in activity through regular exercise and good nutrition, though it would be hard to argue against a similar light needing to be shone on farming. 

Dairy farmer health was a subject quite literally close to the heart of Hauraki Plains cardiac arrest survivor Ian Handcock when he chose the topic for his Kellogg scholarship study in 2014.

As an ex-dairy farmer and a farm adviser in constant contact with farmers, he has seen and experienced the effect poor lifestyle choices, lack of exercise, and constant stress levels can have on farmer health.

Ian’s study involved analysing key health data from 1400 dairy farmers and highlighted the high level of cardiovascular risk the job presents.

Eighty percent of the males (and 60% of the females) in the study had body mass index (BMI) levels greater than 25, which is borderline and almost a third of the male farmers (and 20% of the female farmers) exceeded a BMI of 30, which is classified as obese.

Additionally, the study found that 61% of farmers felt that despite the more sedentary nature of the job, they were concerned about their ability to keep up with the physical demands of the business (which should by rights bring on a light-bulb moment that fitness work away from the farm is needed to do the job, let alone change body composition).

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Organisations such as Farmstrong (farmstrong.co.nz) are doing an amazing job of highlighting mental and physical health issues around farming, supplying loads of resources online, and pushing for annual check-ups.

An annual physical (do it on your birthday so you remember) should include blood pressure, cholesterol, prostate health, blood sugars, and waist to height ratio (your waist measurement should be under half your height whoever you are).

Track the numbers and get an awareness of how health markers might be changing over time to take responsibility for your own health. Just to support this, Ian’s study showed two-thirds of the farmers had higher than recommended cholesterol levels and half returned blood pressure results regarded as moderately high to high.

The elephant in the room for the modern age is where do we draw the line between increased efficiency in the workplace and the labour savers actually causing disease through promoting inactivity?

Maybe look seriously at the processes around the farm and consider if they are actually creating efficiency, or is this outweighed by the consequent damage to health. At the least, consider taking up a regular sport or fitness training session, decreasing the beer, and getting off the bike a bit more.

And the farmer who won the fitness challenge at the Rural Bachelor Fieldays (and the overall Golden Gumboot trophy) was Matthew McAtamney, who coincidentally is also the farmer who regularly plays hockey as well as running the farm. Proof enough, I reckon.

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