Alta. project aims to improve farmers’ health

Findings suggest producers tend to have poor diets and don’t exercise much; they also put work over their health

QUEBEC CITY — A project in Alberta has been assessing the health of farmers, using data to help them make better lifestyle decisions.

The three-year sustainable farm families program, led by the Farm Safety Centre, saw nurses measure the cholesterol, muscle mass, blood sugars, visceral fat and other health metrics of participating farmers.

The assessments were given in the first year and then were followed up yearly to see whether farmers’ health had improved.

“We give them this information and spend the rest of the day going through what each of these metrics mean,” said Jordon Jensen, manager of the program, after sharing the project at the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association’s annual conference in Quebec City.

“We look at cholesterol, for example, describing where it comes from and how it can be improved,” he said. “Farmers really don’t have information on this elsewhere and they don’t research it.”

The health of farmers has been a longstanding issue that safety advocates have been hoping to improve.

Jensen said farmers are at a disadvantage when compared to people who live in cities. They lack access to health centres because they live outside of large population centres. As well, he said, farmers tend to have poor diets, don’t get enough exercise and have a tough-it-out mentality, putting work and long-hours over personal health concerns.

He pointed to Statistics Canada data that shows rural people have more chronic disease and shorter life expectancy than the rest of the population because of some of these factors.

“All of these challenges create a difficult lifestyle that is not conducive to a healthy lifestyle,” Jensen said. “We need to address these issues so farmers understand the value of their health. It would help them remove some of these challenges.”

The project, he said, addresses some of the challenges, getting farmers to make their personal health front and centre.

He said when participants saw their initial results, the majority became committed in improving them.

In the second-year and third-year follow-up test, many of them had better health metrics by improving things like their diet, exercise and stress management.

“As people progress through the program, they change their perspective on things,” Jensen said. “We are seeing people make changes.”

The majority of participants also saw lots of value in the workshops and in the assessments, with 87 to 100 percent of them saying they would recommend it and that they will complete it.

“They talked about it and shared it with their families, telling them they have to try this,” Jensen said. “They learned a lot. It does take time. The workshops are a full-day commitment, but they saw that value.”

He suggested more could be done to help prevent farmers from developing chronic diseases.

“Most times, farmers don’t go to the hospital for routine checkups. They go to emergencies if they are really sick or if they cut off a limb,” he said.

“Often times, doctors are not worried about measuring blood sugar and cholesterol, so it goes unchecked. We are trying to ensure there is a preventive approach to keep them from ending up in the hospital.”

The project was funded by Growing Forward 2 and the Canadian Agricultural Partnership program, with dollars coming from the provincial and federal governments.

Jensen said there is funding for the Farm Safety Centre to continue working on the project for another three years. He said there are 25 to 30 workshops each winter, which run from November to March.

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