“Bending, squatting, grabbing, twisting, pulling, pushing, cutting, walking, running, jumping, dragging, digging, pounding, lifting, tossing, catching, reaching. These are all examples of ways you’re likely incorporating physical activity into your farming duties regularly,” said Kate Graves.

Graves is a registered dietitian working for University of New Hampshire Extension. She discussed the importance of physical health and physical health guidelines as part of the UNH Women in Agriculture Wellness series, sponsored by Annie’s Project, Northeast Extension Risk Management Education and USDA.

While it cannot be disputed that farming is a physically demanding occupation, Graves said research shows it is not as physically demanding as it was 100 years ago, due to the assistance of tools and mechanization. This, of course, depends on the equipment being used and the type of agricultural business. Farmers and farmworkers are likely to have gaps in the physical health recommendations as set by the CDC.

According to CDC guidelines, adults ages 18 – 65 should get at least 150 minutes a week of moderate intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity. This is different from anaerobic exercise, which includes short bursts of intense activity such as weightlifting, sprinting, Pilates or yoga.

Only one in four adults in the U.S. is meeting the CDC guidelines for aerobic activity. Aerobic activities, also referred to as “cardio,” are those that increase breathing and heart rates, such as brisk walking, swimming, cycling and rowing. The CDC also recommends muscle strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity that involve all major muscle groups on two or more days per week.

“Oftentimes when we’re discussing physical activity, people think of things like reduced weight gain or increasing their muscle mass, but the benefits of physical activity actually extend far beyond that, including benefits on brain health, which studies show happen immediately after a session of physical activity,” Graves said.

Another reason farmers and farmworkers should assess their physical well-being is that studies show physical and mental well-being are interconnected. Research shows that major depressive disorder is more likely to occur among people in agricultural occupations. Farmers and farmworkers should be aware that meeting the CDC’s physical activity guidelines may reduce short-term feelings of anxiety, reduce the risk of developing dementia including Alzheimer’s disease and reduce the risk of depression.

Graves said symptoms of depression may be two to 10 times more common for individuals who have a disability or chronic illness. Meeting the guidelines may also help people who have a disability or chronic illness cope with their increased risk of depression.

Meeting the CDC’s physical activity guidelines can also provide myriad other benefits. They can help reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and many types of cancers. In addition, they can increase bone strength, help with balance and coordination and improve independence during aging.

“This is a moment I would encourage you to self-reflect and look at what you’re already doing,” Graves said. “See where your job is already physically demanding and where there are those gaps, so that you can get at least those 150 minutes of aerobic activity and those two or more days of muscle strengthening activities for all the major muscle groups.”

She suggested consulting with a healthcare professional, especially when the farmer or farmworker plans to add a new physical activity. This is especially important for someone who is farming with a disability, chronic illness or while pregnant because it’s easy to overlook that certain physical activities may exacerbate those conditions.

She also encouraged people to listen to their bodies and understand their limits as they undertake new physical activities. “No one knows or understands your body better than you do,” she said. “If something is not feeling right to you, especially in a moment where you’re being active, listen to that.”

It’s also important to find the proper space. Graves said, “I think finding a location where you’re comfortable being physically active is really important. Some people enjoy being outdoors, others like the comfort of their own home or some people want to go to the gym.”

Auditing physical activity goes hand in hand with an eating audit. Graves shared the most recent U.S. dietary guidelines referred to as MyPlate. The goal of MyPlate is to signify the amount of each food group – fruits, vegetables, grains and proteins – that people should be eating each day in the visual form of a plate.

“Focus on what you can be adding to your plate rather than all of the negatives. I think a lot of us, when we come to health and wellness, we get in this place of all the things we think we’re doing wrong. Focus on what we can add to our day to make it more balanced,” Graves said.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin