‘Onslaught of Covid-19 significantly impacted farmer well-being’

The onslaught of Covid-19 has impacted farmers and their well-being significantly, according to farmer health advocate, Laura Tully.

“The usual toll that farming takes during the busy calving and lambing season was compounded by the unprecedented challenge of maintaining food production and supply during a national lockdown,” said Laura, an institute nurse and health centre co-ordinator at Athlone Institute of Technology (AIT).

Farmers are exhausted, both physically and mentally, and face many uncertainties on the farm, in the marketplace and in their personal lives. The Covid-19 pandemic has had wide-ranging effects on people’s quality of life and work and as our days shorten and become darker, the sense of a challenging winter ahead prevails.

“It is important that farmers prepare to stay healthy and well this winter by looking after the most important aspect of the farm; themselves. Resilience reserves are already low and a fatigued mind and body can lead to illness,” said Laura.

She created a novel health promoting lifestyle intervention for farmers called the ‘Fit Farmers’ programme in 2019 which aimed to significantly improve the nutrition, strength and well-being of Irish farmers.

The hugely successful programme is delivered locally via a series of expert-led workshops and workouts over a six-week period.

To date, supported by Roscommon Sports Partnership, 76 farmers have undertaken Laura’s programme with outstanding results in terms of weight loss, increased strength, improved cardiovascular fitness, increased physical activity as well as positive gains in mental and social health.

More energy

Mervyn Auchmuty (40) from Lecarrow in Roscommon is a mixed farmer and agricultural contractor who completed the programme in February, achieving over a 9kg weight loss, significant inch loss as well as improvements in blood pressure, fitness and strength.

Mervyn continues to regularly walk or jog with his family and advises other farmers to consider putting themselves first and looking after their health.

“If you make the effort, you benefit by feeling better and having more energy which stands to you significantly on the farm,” he said.

‘Fit’ farmer Michael Mulryan (63), from Ballintubber in Roscommon, shed over 3 stone since completing Laura’s programme in February. He too reported feeling significantly better.

I make healthier choices now. I used the traffic light system Laura showed us on food labels to help me decide on my food purchases; I keep active and walk 7.5km a day and am delighted to say my doctor couldn’t believe the improvements in my health. I would recommend the programme to everyone.

Current public health guidance inhibits the delivery of the ‘Fit Farmers’ programme in its usual format which is underpinned by regular-face-to face mentorship and a sense of social connectedness, Laura said.

In an effort to combat the current exacerbating wave of social isolation among older persons, she is collaborating with Roscommon Sports Partnership to deliver a series of rural well-being walks in south Roscommon.

“This outdoor socially distant physical activity programme has proven popular with 35 registered participants who are divided into small group pods in line with the Sport Ireland guidelines for safe physical activity,” said Laura.

“The programme has been really well received and while it cannot replicate the full ‘Fit Farmers’ programme, it is a safe social outlet for people during a challenging time.

Two farmers travel the length of the county to join us every Monday. They miss the local pub; social dancing; card games; and their previous activities and tell me the journey is worth it because they go home feeling in good form having walked and talked with others – even though they are 2m apart.

Laura urges farmers to look at novel ways to remain socially connected, active and healthy this winter while adhering to the public health guidance which aims to protect us all.

“No matter how old you are or how busy you are, walking will work. Just put one foot in front of the other, start and stay committed. You should walk actively just five times a week for 30 minutes each time. You can start with just 10 minutes of walking and build from there.

“Even if you walk out your front door for five minutes and walk back, you’re going to feel good – and you’re starting to do yourself some good.”

Follow evidence-based health advice

Laura recommends that farmers walk safely at the many local GAA clubs well-lit accessible walking tracks or find a local walking group. In order to prepare to stay healthy this winter, she advises that farmers boost their well-being significantly by following some simple evidence-based health advice.

“Eat well and get outdoors. Following a nutrient-rich diet that includes lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains is crucial in order to prime your immune system to effectively fight illness and keep your body healthy. Regular exercise outside of daily farm activity, combined with adequate sleep, will also help you to resist infectious diseases,” said Laura.

“Try to spend as much time as possible outdoors in natural daylight to boost your mood and keep your body’s most important systems running smoothly. Mind your mind. Staying well mentally is just as important as staying well physically. Talking to a friend or family member while out for your walk can help boost your mood,” she said.

Laura recommends farmers to take a look at the dedicated farmer resources available on Mental Health Ireland’s website to aid farmer well-being this winter.

Vaccinated

Get vaccinated is another tip from Laura.

“Although Covid-19 has taken centre stage this year, it is important not to forget about traditional winter threats like influenza,” said Laura. She has been promoting the flu jab to her walking group members as absolutely essential this year.

“Adults over 65 should also consider the pneumococcal vaccine to protect against a type of pneumonia unrelated to Covid-19. The flu vaccine for at-risk groups will be available free of charge this year from the end of September,” Laura said.

“Keep washing your hands. Washing with simple soap and water will help significantly to prevent the spread of germs at all times but is particularly useful in preventing the spread of Covid-19.

“Follow all of the public health guidelines to help stop the spread of germs this winter. Remember the importance of maintaining good respiratory etiquette, social distancing and appropriate use of your face covering,” she said.

“Don’t skip visits to the doctor. Many people have avoided routine check ups and medical appointments in recent months. Doctors are now equipped for routine visits in a coordinated and safe manner so you can visit your doctor by prior arrangement or via a video consultation,” Laura said.

It is important to report any abnormal, new or unusual symptoms to your doctor so that potential problems are identified early when they are most treatable.

“The social glue that kept people in rural Ireland going has been decimated. Everyone is feeling very lonely and isolated in the absence of being able to attend social gatherings and this can have a cumulative effect and be damaging to our well-being.

“It is vital that we continue to stay connected, active and healthy in order to meet the challenge of Covid this winter,” Laura said.