Fitness drive down on the farm

Farmers need to place more emphasis on their health for quality of life and farm-production reasons.

That’s one of the messages, along with calls for a greater awareness of farm safety, that is being given out at shows and other rural gatherings this year.

Teagasc health and safety specialist John McNamara, said recently that research from Ireland and internationally indicates that poor health leads to reduced capacity to undertake farm work.

This can result in reduced income because farmers in poor health are also susceptible to higher levels of injuries.

“Studies show that farmers tend to consider themselves as healthy when they can carry out work, but tend to ignore health issues that could have long-term consequences,” he said.

Teagasc is engaged in an ongoing study of farmers’ health in association with professionals from the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT), Centre for Men’s Health, IT Carlow and the UCD Schools of Physiotherapy and Performance Science and Agriculture and Food Science.

Recent study findings among a sample of 366 farmers (86% male) compares self-reported health behaviours with overall general population statistics from the national Survey on Lifestyle and Attitude to Nutrition.

These showed that 38% of farmers reported one or more health issues in the previous 12 months. Some 34% reported a physical health complaint and 12% mental-health issues.

Some 59% of farmers had consulted their general medical practitioner about their health within the previous year, compared to 74% of the general population.

Low back pain was the most prevalent physical complaint occurring in 28% of farmers. This level is higher than the general level (16%).

About 60% of farmers surveyed were classified as ‘overweight or obese’ compared to 50% of the overall population. Among farmers just 27% believed they were too heavy.

In contrast, 54% of farmers reported undertaking high levels of physical activity compared to 24% for the general population.

Some 18% of farmers reported that they smoked compared to 29% for the general population while 85% said they drank alcohol compared to 80%.

The study also found that 19% of farmers reported binge drinking (having six or more standard drinks on one occasion) at least once per week compared to 28% generally.

Aubrey Storey, lecturer in exercise and health science at WIT, said behaviour change is a key to either health gain or its maintenance.

Making small initial changes based on heightened awareness can lead to major positive change in a person’s health profile over time.

Studies indicate that farmers should make greater use of healthcare professionals when unwell. These also show a high level of low back pain which can restrict a farmer’s work activity.

‘Staying Fit for Farming — A Health Booklet for Farmers’ can be downloaded from the Teagasc website at

“Just like when you are herding your cattle or working with your tractor — acting early if you see a problem can make a big difference,” the booklet states.

“It will certainly ensure you and others working in farming can continue to enjoy life as well as farming for a long time to come,” Teagasc says.

The Irish Farmers Association has, meanwhile, joined forces with the Farmers Have Hearts initiative, led by the Irish Heart Foundation.

It followed the revelation that farmers are almost seven times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease, mainly heart disease and stroke, than the lowest risk occupational group, salaried employees.

Recent research showed that 80% of farmers have four or more risk factors such as family history, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and overweight.

Farmers Have Hearts, funded by the HSE, provides free health checks by Irish Heart Foundation nurses to farmers at marts. Some 2,800 farmers have been checked since 2013 with 72% advised to see their GP.

IFA president Joe Healy said farmers can often take a stand-back attitude to their health, and are reluctant to see a doctor even if they have a particular concern.

“Our message is that having a health check will either put your mind at ease, or set you on the right course to improve your health and lifestyle. Either way, getting a check-up is a smart thing to do,” he said.

Maureen Mulvihill, head of health promotion, Irish Heart Foundation, said farmers are disproportionately affected by chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, despite a common perception that they live healthy and active lives.

“Our research showed that only 32% of those who were advised to see their GP did so, and we are delighted that the IFA is lending its support to help farmers realise that preventing a heart attack or stroke by identifying risk factors is a positive step.

“For example, high-blood pressure or high cholesterol can be managed very successfully working with the family doctor and can prevent serious heart problems developing in the future, which could impact on ability to work and livelihood,” she said.

Research on 310 farmers as part of Farmers Have Hearts showed that 79% of those checked in the marts were advised to follow up with a GP visit.

One-third of these farmers did see a GP within 12 weeks and almost half of those found to be at risk made changes to their lifestyle.

A healthcheck can pick up risk factors and signs for concern. It will take just 30 minutes and involves very little preparation.

Results are provided straight away and the nurse or doctor will advise on a one-to-one basis any steps needed to reduce heart health risk.

Health Minister Simon Harris said modest lifestyle changes and the support of healthcare professionals can make a huge difference.

“I hope that farmers will take advantage of the free checks and advice on offer,” he said.


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