Alarm bells for flabby farmers

SUE O'DOWD
Last updated 05:00 07/03/2014

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New Zealand's dairy farmers once bulked out the All Blacks' forward pack or nipped around their opponents in the back line.

They were the cream of the country's physical crop and the envy of lesser beings living in town. But in the modern world a different picture is emerging.

No longer are dairy farmers trim and fit. Instead, they're overweight and stressed and they've also got high cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure.

A health screening programme conducted by DairyNZ in conjunction with the New Zealand Institute of Rural Health (NZIRH) over the last four years has checked 2500 people working on dairy farms.

"Most farmers carry more weight than they should, have high blood pressure and high cholesterol, and are at significant risk of cardiovascular disease," NZIRH business manager Brent Nielsen, of Cambridge, said at a health pit stop at DairyNZ's Milksmart seminar in Stratford.

As farms became bigger and as farming became more mechanised, farmers were doing less strenuous work and less exercise.

"They have workers instead of doing the work themselves and they're sitting on their quad bikes instead of walking," he said.

A paramedic, Mr Nielsen said around a third of the dairy farmers screened had results he described as "alarming".

The median body mass index (BMI) was 30.1, which was obese and higher than in the general population.

One-third of those screened had cholesterol levels needing referral to their doctors, half had high or moderately high blood pressure and 5 per cent had high blood sugar levels, he said.

However, the farmers had an ally in Hawera general practitioner Keith Blayney, who was cautious about both the results and the effectiveness of such screening programmes.

He said a high BMI did not necessarily mean a person was overweight.

"A lot of farmers are well built and muscular, not fat, and are healthier than skinny people," he said.

Dairy farmer Nick Barrett, of New Plymouth, had been meaning to visit his doctor for six months, and said he would now do so.

"This is a loud and clear signal that we need to be proactive, not reactive after an emergency."

He said many businesses encouraged their staff to undertake physical activity and some companies required health checks, so farmers could learn from that approach.

At Stratford Mr Nielsen was giving farmers on-the-spot results of cholesterol and blood sugar readings, measuring their blood pressure and BMI and asking questions about emotional wellbeing.

"For some, the results are a revelation, for others they confirm what they already knew," Mr Nielsen said.

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The questionnaire showed farmers were more stressed than they admitted. Typically, they were worried about relationships with the people they worked with, debt, drought, the welfare of their animals and whether they had enough feed, he said.

- Taranaki Daily News

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