Australian farmers are being encouraged to get moving in the new year by taking part in a fitness program aimed at improving mental and physical health.
Concerned about the prevalence of depression in rural communities, Ginny Stevens developed exercise program Active Farmers.
The program started in rural New South Wales, where Ms Stevens lives, and has grown to 18 communities across four states including her home state of Tasmania.
“Being a farmer you are often quite isolated because you are trying to run your farm with as little labour units as possible,” she said.
“You might be less active than you once were, you have financial stress, commodity prices that fluctuate, all of those things that potentially contribute to a poorer mental-health state.”
Ms Stevens said farming involved less physical activity than it used to.
“In some cases farmers are still quite active, but in a lot of cases improving technologies have made farming less physical than it once was,” she said.
“So farmers in a lot of cases are not as active as they once were.
“If you exercise and are socially interactive, you will naturally improve your mental health.
Growing need on the land
JJ Pullinger, who runs the Active Farmers class at Hagley in Tasmania’s north, said there was a need for it to expand.
“I have some people that come from Cressy, about 50km away, they don’t want to go to a gym, they want to work out in the outdoors with other farmers, other like-minded people,” she said.
“So to be able to offer it in lots of other towns and communities across Tasmania would be perfect.”
Hagley farmer James Peddie said the program was as much about social interaction as fitness.
“A lot of what we do is quite solitary,” he said.
“It is fun. At three o’clock in the afternoon when you have been drenching sheep all day, you are still keen for more.”
Participant Victoria Archer agreed.
“It is really essential to get together with your community,” she said.
“You could have had one of the toughest days, and then you come here and have a good laugh and just have a good time and forget about it.”
Farmer James Clutterbuck said the program had improved his physical fitness.
“It is just good to keep active,” he said.
“Working on a farm nowadays, you probably don’t do much to get out of breath or get the heart rate going.”
The program also recently started up on Flinders Island, off Tasmania’s north-east coast, with farmer Kate Klug running the classes.
“Too many times we always put the farm before us and at the end of the day, our health is number one,” she said.
Aiming for national coverage
Ms Stevens said she would like the program to eventually be rolled out across Australia, but reaching that goal relied on people giving it a go.
“Traditionally farmers probably don’t come together and exercise. It is not an easy target market, trying to get farmers — and particularly men — along.
“We cannot encourage them enough because we know how beneficial it is for them to look after their health.
“It is up to them to make that decision themselves. We encourage peer pressure.
“People are a little bit like sheep so if someone else is doing it others are likely to follow and give it a go.”
Growing the program also requires more people across the country to put their hands to become trainers.
Ms Pullinger said taking on the role was a rewarding experience.
“If I go home and I know I have helped one person it makes me feel good, so it is good for my mental health as well,” she said.