A study involving True Fitness and the Institute of Technology Sligo saw 30 farmers complete a 6-week physical activity and health education intervention in Laois from October to December 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The results from this research study are outlined below.
Ruth Kavanagh 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 6-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.
• Participants met twice each week for 2 hours of physical activity and 1 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.
Ruth said, “I received phone calls from farmers all over Ireland who wanted to take part but unfortunately not everyone could take part as the intervention was delivered in Laois”.
Farmers in this study travelled from various parts of Laois, Offaly, Kildare, Westmeath Kilkenny and Tipperary (A reminder that this was before the COVID-19 pandemic).
The majority of participants were male (90%) farmers aged between 36 and 59 years (60%).
Although most farmers (76.7%) did not participate in any weight loss or healthy living programme prior to this study, there was good adherence to this intervention (75%), indicating that lifestyle interventions specific to the farming community are attractive for members of this industry.
Several of the findings are of particular concern:
• 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.
• Our study found that most farmers had high blood pressure (70% before, 60% after).
• 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.
• Lower leg strength also improved after the 6-week intervention.
This is another positive finding as increased lower leg strength reduces frailty, injury, and risk of falls in later years, on the farm and at home.
• 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.
• Overall, 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). High intakes of salt are a well-established risk factor for high blood pressure.
• Diets were low in fibre which is similar to findings among the general Irish population despite the well-established benefits on reducing chronic disease risk and role in weight control.
• Diets were low in fruits, vegetables, fish and nuts despite the well-established heart health benefits.
• 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.
• Although Irish farmers remain at high risk of developing chronic diseases, they respond positively to lifestyle intervention.
• 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 (testimonial is below from Laois farmer Declan Byrne).
Advice from author Ruth Kavanagh, registered nutritionist with True Fitness:
• 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, especially when these changes are sustained over time.
Testimonial from farmer Declan Byrne 2 months after he completed the 6-week intervention
(February 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic):
“When I signed up for the true fitness programme last October, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect but it very quickly became apparent that it was exactly what I needed.
The programme combines practical, sensible and most importantly sustainable information and advice on healthy lifestyle choices in all aspects of life but especially diet and physical health.
Under the expert guidance of Diane, John and Ruth we began to have a much clearer understanding of how to make more informed decisions about food and healthy eating.
How to read food labels, how to measure portion sizes and identify the dangers of added sugar just a small sample of what the programme has to offer.
The journey we undertook physically was equally challenging and incredibly rewarding as Johns expertise on how our body works as we get older and the correct way to exercise proved invaluableand has definitely helped me to regain a much improved level of fitness.
In truth I have only scratched at the surface of what the programme has to offer, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Although it was geared towards the farming community it would bemclearly beneficial to any and all sectors.
Under Ruth’s wonderful and enthusiastic guidance the entire experience has been hugely beneficial and I am eternally grateful to have participated in it as I have made many new friends as we continue our healthier lifestyle choices and I firmly believe that our journey is just beginning...Declan..”
Updated testimonial from farmer Declan Byrne 16 months after he completed the 6-week intervention (March 2021): “Who amongst us could possibly have imagined how the last twelve months have unfolded and it is no exaggeration to say that Covid-19 has presented enormous challenges to all of us and has profoundly impacted our lifestyles in ways we never thought possible.
As farmers, perhaps we have been fortunate in that we continue to work (inside the farm gate at least) in a somewhat normal environment but like everyone else have had to adapt to a completely new way of living in all other aspects of our lives.
One of the most positive influences for me in this 'new normal' lifestyle has been my continued participation in several of the 'True Fitness' interventions that were held at various stages throughout the year. These programmes through necessity have been conducted online using the zoom platform and have been an absolute lifesaver for both my physical and emotional wellbeing.... “ Declan