HEALTH FARM Physical work and constant movement are more effective at creating adaptable strength and aerobic fitness than any gym session.
One hundred and thirty odd years ago, my great grandfather, John Henry O’Brien, took up a plot of one thousand acres of land near Warren in central-western New South Wales. The area had only been settled about 20 years earlier, so it was virgin land that had to be cleared by hand. Think axes, handsaws and horses against hardwood trees standing 20 metres tall. Throw in the heat of the Australian summer against a recent arrival from County Carlow working by himself, and you have a pretty uphill battle.
Fast-forward a century to the early 1980s and the combination of severe drought, high interest rates and low wool prices saw some farmers in the area in the awful position whereby it was cheaper to shoot stock than try to feed or sheer them. I remember going through my father’s rainfall charts for a geography assignment in high school and finding whole years with less than ten days of rain.
Yes, farming in Australia is a hot, dry and pretty thankless task. Most of my dad’s contemporaries have had a few joint replacements – one of my uncles is on his second set of new hips. Invariably, they have dodgy backs and are half deaf from using machinery without adequate protection. Seeing all of this made me question the sanity of being a farmer and led me down the route to becoming a physiotherapist.
What has any of this got to do with working in the west? Since moving to Westport I’ve had the chance to meet (and treat) more farmers than I ever did in Dublin. Added to that, I’ve recently started working with the Tourmakeady Gaelic footballers, who can count a good few farmers in their ranks. And, while the farms might be smaller and the weather cooler and wetter, the similarities are there.
Stiff backs and aching joints are par for the course. As are feet that have been misshapen from too many years in wellies or work boots. Shoulders might not move as well as they should, and if you can turn your head halfway to either side you’re probably better off than most!
But the biggest similarity is probably the one thing that ties the majority of farmers around the world together: durability, toughness, resilience – call it what you will. I am always amazed by the ability of farmers to get up ridiculously early and do a full day’s work then go to football training, play a tennis match or go for a round of golf.
Really though, such things shouldn’t be a surprise. Indeed, one of the scientists searching for the man who will run the first sub-two hour marathon is convinced the athlete will be from a farming background. Apparently, if Aussie Rules clubs have to choose between two players who appear otherwise equal, they will opt for the farm kid over the city slicker. Athletes from a farming background have most likely had a more continuously active life, which means they have built a bigger fitness base without training. Physical work and constant movement create adaptable strength and aerobic fitness better than any gym session.
In later life too, the benefits of an active life are apparent. Statistically farmers live longer than their indoor counterparts, due mainly to their active lifestyle. While there may be a few aches and pains from climbing on tractors and over fences, the constant movement is protective of heart and lungs. Weight bearing and strengthening exercise reduce the risk of osteoporosis, as does increased vitamin D production that comes from sun exposure.
So, before you get to feeling sorry for the farmers, maybe try emulating them a little. Be more active, get outside more and do more varied exercise. And to all the farmers, we salute you. Many think you must be half mad to drag yourself out there every day for diminishing financial rewards and increasing physical pain. Then we remember where our next meal is coming from.
Andrew O’Brien is a chartered physiotherapist and the owner of Wannarun Physiotherapy and Running Clinic at Westport Leisure Park. He can be contacted on 083 1593200 or at www.wannarun.ie.