New Zealanders think of farmers as epitomising good health: fit, burly men on their feet doing physical labour all day, every day.
Improved technology, poor diet and stress have produced some horrifying statistics to the contrary. A 2013 research project identified 75 per cent of dairy farmers as at risk of cardiovascular disease.
Tasks that were previously labour intensive such as milking, drenching and haymaking have become highly automated. Quad bikes have become an essential part of farming. Long periods sitting on a quad can lead to poor posture and increased inactivity. Compounding the issue, time saved through automation is generally devoted to sedentary activities such as planning and management.
More worrying is the high incidence of depression reported among dairy farmers. Dairy consultant Ian Handcock believes an insidious negative feedback cycle is at work.
"Long hours, uncontrollable stress factors such as environmental and financial pressure and the opportunity for solitude can [induce] a negative mindset," says Handcock.
Acknowledging the established link between exercise and increased mental wellbeing, Handcock continues: "The level of physical activity on dairy farms has become insufficient to be useful as a management tool for stress and depression."
Handcock is organising a 33-day interactive cycle tour from Ngatea to Bluff to raise awareness of the health issues facing the farming industry. Twenty farmers will complete the 1700km Fit4Farming Cycle Tour from March 18 to April 2. Event days have been organised in farming communities along the way to spread the wellbeing message.
"We are running five major event days that are free to attend. There are run, walk and cycle activities designed to get farmers, their families and staff away from their business and socialising while undertaking physical activity," says Handcock.
Hauraki Plains dairy farmers Glenda and Neil Gray will join the peloton. Glenda was a keen and active sportswoman until she experienced a series of injuries.
"Cycling was my saviour," she says. "I started with short amounts of time on a wind trainer to build base fitness, then joined a local cycle group. The organisers do a fantastic job of encouraging people into cycling. I enjoy getting off the farm and riding with a vast range of people."
Husband Neil was drawn into cycling by his wife's enthusiasm. A shared interest in the sport now means the couple enjoy family time together away from the farm.
Paeroa dairy farmer Evan Smith has had a 15-year love affair with cycling and is well aware of its mental and physical benefits.
"Cycling is a great way to relieve stress by getting away from the farm. I enjoy feeling fit and healthy," he says.
Peloton rider Wayne Richards is looking forward to a serious cycling challenge, which he believes carries an important message.
"It's an event that will benefit the wider farming community and draw attention to the importance of health and fitness for farmers."
Another initiative, the Farmstrong Challenge, encourages primary producers to form teams, set goals and collectively run, walk, swim or cycle four million kilometres in 12 months. If every farmer and grower in New Zealand commits to 70km of exercise - just 1.3km a week - the target will be reached. Former All Blacks captain Ian Kirkpatrick supports the Farmstrong Challenge.
"Farming is physical but it's strength-based. If you want to look after your health, you need a bit of aerobic fitness as well. And it gets you off the farm, makes you think differently."
Kirkpatrick advises people signing up for the challenge to set realistic goals that will give them a higher chance of success.
"It's no big deal: just be realistic, keep it simple and do something sustainable so that you will stick with it. It's not about having to [exercise], it's about wanting to do it and enjoying it. Fit body, fit mind - it's better for your wellbeing to have a balance."
Fit4Farming cycle tour and event days
1700km cycle tour, Waikato to Bluff, March 18-April 2
Waikato, March 19; Taranaki, March 21; Manawatu, March 23; Canterbury, March 28; Southland, April 1
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