Changing lives

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Above: Kicking off this month, the Farmstrong Fit4Farming Cycle Tour includes a core ‘peloton’ of 20 farmers and sponsors, riding the country from Ngatea to Bluff, helping to raise awareness about the importance of keeping fit on the farm. 

Ian Handcock

Ian Handcock

Ian Handcock is on a mission to change farmers’ lives. And not on a small scale either. The energetic motivator is on a mission to inspire New Zealand to be the healthiest, fittest farming nation in the world – and part of that hinges around this month’s inaugural Farmstrong Fit4Farming Cycle tour.

A 16 day, 1400 km interactive cycle tour from Ngatea to Invercargill through rural New Zealand, the Farmstrong Fit4Farming tour aims to bring awareness to farming communities about health and exercise. Local riders and their families are encouraged to attend organised event days scheduled in main stopovers, including Cambridge.

“Our mission is to improve the sustainability of the farming industry by promoting wellbeing, and inspiring and motivating rural people to be active and healthy,” says Ian.

A former drystock and sheep farmer, the Thames-based farm consultant is a long-time advocate of improving farmer health. He walks the talk, regularly competing in multisport events and hosting the challenging Surf to Firth bush marathon.

“Fitness is a big thing to me, it always has been,” he says.

“Physical activity in dairy farming is no longer sufficient to protect our farmers from cardiovascular disease.

Farmers are spending more time in managerial and decision-making roles, and using automation and mechanisation to do much of the physical work. Research shows farmers rarely increase their heart rates above low intensity.

“Healthy fit people have more confidence in decision-making. They have better time management, have a positive attitude about life, create positive cultures and contribute to their communities.

“They have better metabolism, lower blood pressure, and can manage their weight better which equates to better health. They will suffer less injuries and have less ‘burnout’. They will stay in the industry longer.”

Fitness Journal chats with Ian about his passion for the Farmstrong Fit4Farming Cycle tour.

How and why you get involved with this event?
It really started after the 2012-13 drought. My farmer clients who had interests off farm managed their stress levels much better than those who were trapped on the farm both mentally and physically.

By letting go of the uncontrollable such as the dry conditions farmers could actually enjoy the fine weather by taking up sports or family activities, and when the drought ended they were the first to capitalise on the better conditions. It reminded me that the most important thing in life is yourself. Get you right and everything else will follow.

Health statistics for our farmers are very poor and the only way to change is for farmers to physically alter their lifestyle. I studied farmer fitness as part of a Kellogg Rural Leader programme and the outcome of that research indicated we have a lot of ground to make up in order to improve farmers’ health.

Physical activity gives farmers a reason to leave the farm physically and emotionally. It releases endorphins which helps improve mood, clears the mind and improves decision making. Exercise offers the opportunity to connect, share stories and learn from others. It also offers a daily dose of emotional success. There is limited emotional return for farmers with low milk or meat returns because they feel there is no success – in fact financially they are slipping backwards. Simply riding an old bike around the farm, playing a game of squash or going for a walk with your neighbour can be hugely rewarding.

What motivates you?
Being around energetic and active people that just get stuff done.  The language is different and there is always that accomplishment which they see as success. I founded the Surf2Firth Bush marathon which is one of the toughest around, and when people complete it, the look on their faces is priceless.

I also like to see people push the boundaries. I ran the 100kmTarawera Ultra Marathon last year. I had only trained for the 60km but wanted to see how far I could push myself, so kept going to the finish line.

Organising this cycle tour has pushed me way out of my comfort zone and I hope those who take part extend themselves as well, either through cycling or some other way.

What has been the biggest challenge so far?
Fully understanding the magnitude of the challenge ahead to make a positive change to improve the health of our people. Issues around health and wellbeing have crept up on the industry and we have taken an approach which is totally against the grain to get some action. I think there is some real apathy around improving our health and wellbeing.

Another challenge is the difficulty getting someone to exercise if they are not already fit and active. It takes time and if people simply make a start, are patient and set small goals they will reap the benefits. Again it comes back to sticking your hand up and having a go.

What would make you consider it a success?
Seeing an improvement in the physical health stats in the primary industry. This can only come about when our people change their lifestyles by making the most of daily opportunities to improve diet and aerobic fitness.

Farmers and growers have a unique opportunity to plan off- farm activity around their work far more easily than office workers.

Free annual GP health check-ups for staff would also be a great start.
Waikato supporters can become involved by joining in on March 19 (10am-2pm) on the 5km run, the Kids’

Amazing Farm Course challenge, the 12km ride to Lake Karapiro or register to join the 40km road ride.

For the event timetable, visit Farmstrong.co.nz/challenge

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