Irish farmers are at a high risk of developing chronic diseases; however, they respond positively to lifestyle interventions, a new study has found.
A study involving True Fitness and the Institute of Technology Sligo saw 30 farmers complete a six-week physical activity and health education intervention in Laois from October to December 2019, before Covid-19 reached these shores.
Ruth Kavanagh of True Fitness received an employment-based postgraduate scholarship from the Irish Research Council to complete this research.
The aim of the programme was to improve farmers’ health, fitness and wellness.
The six-week intervention was designed and delivered by a multidisciplinary team including a: clinical exercise physiologist; qualified exercise strength and conditioning instructor; dietitian; and registered nutritionist, Ruth explained.
During the course, participants met twice each week for two hours of physical activity and one hour of health education on topics such as the importance of healthy eating and regular exercise, understanding food labels and metabolic and cardiovascular health in addition to injury prevention and goal setting.
Farmers who participated in this study travelled from Laois, Offaly, Kildare, Westmeath, Kilkenny and Tipperary. 90% of participants were male, with 60% aged between 36 and 59 years of age.
Although 76.7% of farmers did not participate in any weight loss or healthy living programme prior to this study, there was good adherence to this intervention – some 75%.
This, Ruth explained, indicates that “lifestyle interventions specific to the farming community are attractive for members of this industry”.
Several of the findings are of particular concern, Ruth warned, highlighting that 100% of farmers were living with overweight or obesity before and after the intervention, which is greater than the 60% of the general Irish adult population.
Most farmers carried extra weight around their middle, which is a risk factor for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. In addition, most participant farmers had high blood pressure – 70% before the course, and 60% after.
Commenting, Ruth said: “Cardiovascular fitness is an independent predictor of health. This means that people who are fitter are less likely to develop chronic diseases regardless of their body weight.
Cardiovascular fitness levels improved after the intervention which is a major benefit – because if farmers are fitter then this reduces the physical stress associated with daily farming activities in addition to other well established physical and mental health benefits.
Another point identified by True Fitness was that lower leg strength also improved after the six-week intervention. Increased lower leg strength reduces frailty, injury, and risk of falls in later years, on the farm and at home, it was added.
Farmers perceived their physical and mental health to significantly improve after the intervention despite not knowing if any changes had actually occurred at this point of testing.
“It is likely that these improvements are from the social support farmers received while attending the community based intervention,” Ruth added.
The study found that, overall, participants’ diets were high in total fat, saturated fat and salt.
Although salt intake reduced after the intervention (6.92g before, 6.01g after), intakes remain higher than what is recommended (5g), True Fitness warned, with high intakes of salt a well established risk factor for high blood pressure.
Diets were low in fibre – similar to findings among the general Irish population – and low in fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts despite the well established heart health benefits. Ruth said:
Before the intervention, 68% of participants in the study consumed alcohol, of this 24% exceeded alcohol guidelines. After the intervention, 32% consumed alcohol and 12% exceeded alcohol guidelines.
Adherence to dietary guidelines improved after the intervention, she added.
78% of the farmers who completed this research study continued to attend weekly exercise classes before the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of these farmers have continued to train with True Fitness online.
Concluding, Ruth said: Don’t underestimate the impact small changes can have on your health.
Simple changes like enjoying more fruits, vegetables and unsalted nuts, drinking more water, not adding sugar to tea/coffee or salt to foods and being more physically active can really make a difference to your health.
This is especially the case when these changes are sustained over time, the nutritionist said.