‘Fit Farmers’ initiative achieves life-saving outcomes

Lifesaving outcomes have been achieved by Roscommon’s ‘Fit Farmers’ programme, with some participants currently undergoing treatment for serious issues detected during the screening process such as very high blood pressure.

This is according to Laura Tully who spearheaded the initiative. “These are life-saving outcomes,” she said.

Laura is institute nurse and health centre co-ordinator at Athlone Institute of Technology.

‘Fit Farmers’ is a novel health promoting lifestyle intervention designed to improve the nutrition, strength and wellness of Irish farmers. The inaugural ‘Fit Farmers’ programme was delivered to 24 farmers, ranging in age from 26 to 74 years in Moore, south Roscommon, over the last 12 weeks. It has attracted wide acclaim across the county.

“The outcomes have been outstanding in terms of weight loss; reductions in abdominal circumference; increases in strength; cardiovascular fitness; positive mental and social health; improvements in blood pressure and markers of metabolic and cardiovascular health; improved nutrition; and increased physical activity,” said Laura.

Conscious that those living in rural Ireland don’t have equitable access to programmes of education, health and wellness, Laura began to develop, coordinate and deliver initiatives in the community on a voluntary basis three years ago.

She identified the farmers in her community as a cohort that had not engaged with health promoting resources locally.

Farming takes a huge toll on the health and well-being of farmers and their families and I felt that farmers were at highest risk of health issues in my community, often overlooking the most important aspect of farming – themselves.

Laura’s professional background in nursing meant that she was acutely aware of the high proportion of farmers with a history of cardiovascular disease.

“Farmers face increasing challenges with falling incomes; higher costs; increased regulations; unpredictable weather; isolation; and long working hours. Farmers often fail to recognise symptoms of stress, and are slow to take steps to reduce and manage it.”

Conscious of these factors, Laura developed the concept of a ‘Fit Farmers’ programme and contacted Dr. Diane Cooper – a clinical exercise physiologist with a degree in sports science and health and a PhD in exercise physiology and metabolism – and John Bolton – a fitness instructor from True Fitness – about the concept.

The trio set about designing a physical activity, nutrition, health and wellness programme specifically for farmers, to be piloted in Moore in January.

Roscommon Sports Partnership supported the programme with funding from Sport Ireland; Pobal; the department of health; and Healthy Ireland, which meant the initiative could be delivered to farmers in their own community.

‘Fit Farmers’ provides an environment which promotes social inclusion for an identified cohort of the community to engage in a programme that empowers and educates participants in line with the Healthy Ireland indicators: health status; weight; diet; smoking; alcohol; physical activity; and well-being.

Results

The ‘Fit Farmers’ programme very successfully improved the body weight; body mass index; waist circumferences; cardiovascular fitness; and lower body strength of the 24 farmers in the group as demonstrated by the pre and post-test data, Laura said. The outcomes were life-saving.

All of these results combine to significantly reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes; high blood pressure; cardiovascular disease; sleep apnoea; certain cancers; and a range of other illnesses and disorders that this group were at high risk of developing.

“The increased strength and fitness evident in this group post-intervention also reduces back pain; alleviates pain and stiffness in joints; makes activities of daily life significantly easier to complete; lessens the risk of injuries and falls; and in general improves quality of life,” said Laura.

“The increase in nutrition and physical activity knowledge was also very evident post-intervention. The farmers commented that they found the health workshops and the take-home resources that were designed specifically for them, to be invaluable. They expressed appreciation for the one-to-one care given throughout the programme.

Less stressed

“All participants reported experiencing an enormous sense of positive well-being as a result of taking part.

“Farmers regularly commented that they felt less stressed. Some farmers reported feeling less angry and frustrated and that they were generally in ‘better form’.

“Some who had previously experienced mental health difficulties, reported an improvement in psychological health and well-being; social connectivity; improved mood and vitality,” Laura said.

There was strong evidence from the group discussions of progression in terms of self-care; self-efficacy; self-confidence; and motivation among the participants, she said.

One participant said:

I was feeling very low after my mother passed away. I was retreating to the house; not cooking; eating cuts of bread all day; and not feeling very motivated for anything. The farmers’ programme has helped me find a new lease of life and I am eating fruit and vegetables now every day and walking further every day. I have found a new routine so am not feeling as lonely now.

“Farmers predominately expressed comments relating to boosted energy levels; improved sleep; focus; and concentration. In terms of health and safety on the farm, evidence suggests a link between the incidence of farm accidents and farmer fatigue,” said Laura.

Improved concentration

One participant said: “My concentration was poor; I was tired all the time; I would often fall asleep watching the telly and no matter how long I slept, I would still be tired.

“Since I began exercising I have noticed I sleep better at night and wake up full of zest and ready to face the day. I feel more focused and the concentration has definitely improved in the few weeks.”

According to Laura: “‘Fit Farmers’ provided support to participants that is social, convivial, community-based, and above all ‘ordinary’ rather than clinical. Farmers were at ease among their peers.

“The programme model presented an opportunity for social inclusion and increased self-esteem in addition to improvements in health and well-being. The ethos of the programme was one of all-inclusiveness.”

Those with disabilities remarked that the programme had given them a new lease of life. One of the participants said: “I am delighted I embraced this programme after initial hesitation.

People tell me the difference in my demeanour, outlook and confidence is massive. I feel like the man I was years ago. I found the art of conversation so difficult before I started and now I can chat to the lads and feel part of a group, this programme has meant a lot to me.

Farmers were delighted to reach their goals weekly, according to Laura. “They reported experiencing a high sense of personal accomplishment and achievement. The group camraderie encouraged a jovial atmosphere and there was a great sense of fun among participants.

“Farmers regularly commended that they enjoyed the ‘banter’ and the conversations which didn’t revolve around farming. A non-competitive environment is promoted at ‘Fit Farmers’ which was well received,” said Laura.

It is hoped to secure funding for a national roll out of the programme. If you are interested in learning more about the ‘Fit Farmers’ programme, contact Dr. Diane Cooper through: www.truefitness.ie.

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