Evidence shows that Irish farmers are seven times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease (CVD), otherwise known as heart disease, respectively, compared to non-agricultural employees.

This was the message delivered at the recent Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists annual conference.

Chartered physiotherapist and chairperson of the Chartered Physiotherapists in Cardiac Services (CPCS), Denise Dunne, gave a presentation to the conference about exercise and cardiovascular health and highlighted the risks to farmers.

Farmers and heart disease

The research, which shows that farmers are more at risk of heart disease, may be difficult to understand according to physiotherapists, as farming is often considered to be a physically active occupation.

Farmers are always on the go and have ever-changing busy day-to-day lives. However, it is estimated that almost 50% of Irish farmers have high blood pressure and elevated total cholesterol.

Denise Dunne highlighted that physical inactivity is the absence or lack of physical activity and is the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality.

Current Irish and European physical activity guidelines recommend a minimum of 150-300 minutes of moderately – or 75 minutes of vigorously – intensive physical activity a week, accumulated in bouts lasting at least 10 minutes.

The benefits include an estimated 30% CVD risk reduction.

Dunne reports that this is often a difficult message to implement for many people, and what is required is that farmers exercise to a level where they are challenging the heart a little by rising the heart rate, adding that they may feel out of breath, a little hot and sweaty.

Study on physical activity on farms

A study was completed and published in the Journal of Agromedicine earlier this year, entitled ‘A Cross-Sectional Analysis of Physical Activity Patterns, Aerobic Capacity and Perceptions about Exercise among Male Farmers in the Mid-West Region of Ireland’‘.

It showed that farmers completed an average of 16,452 steps and 124 minutes of moderate-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) a day.

However, the volume of weekly MVPA was largely accumulated in bouts lasting less than 10 minutes, with only 17.9% completing bouts of greater than 10 minutes.

Dunne highlights the necessity to engage in bouts lasting more than 10 minutes in order to get the most efficient and effective training effect, or “bang for your buck” from a training session.

“We need to reframe how we think about the cardiovascular system. If we start to view the heart like a muscle rather than an organ, we can start to grasp the need to train the muscle to see effective and efficient change over time,” she said.

“Starting a new exercise program is a behaviour change and farmers will require support and assistance but small changes make a big difference.”

Another statistic from the above study was the average daily sitting time of the population studied, this equated to 8.26 hours a day.

Overall, the study highlighted that farmers are indeed fit, have positive perceptions about exercise, and complete large quantities of physical activity, but this may not be in a CVD protective pattern.

The conference heard that CVD risk can be reduced in the farming community by encouraging farmers to sit less and engage in MVPA in bouts of more than 10 minutes.