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Rural Health: Outliving antique tractors may take lifestyle overhaul

Agriculture.com Staff 09/28/2006 @ 1:07pm

Louis Schmidt admits he rarely used the 1941 Farmall H. He certainly never spent money on it. But five years ago, he decided to completely overhaul, sandblast, and paint it. Three years later, he bought and restored a 1951 Cockshutt 40, just like one his dad had traded years ago.

The Gresham, Wisconsin, dairy farmer's attitude toward health has undergone a similar overhaul. A heart attack four years ago at age 61 motivated him and his wife, Jackie, to give their lifestyle a major makeover.

Today the Schmidts exercise daily and have adjusted their diet. Louis has an annual physical. "I keep a close eye on blood pressure and cholesterol," he says.

Louis's health concerns aren't unique. Half of Americans age 55 to 64 have high blood pressure, and 40% are obese, according to a 2005 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.

A recent study reveals Americans have higher rates of chronic disease than the British. The U.S. cancer rate is 9.5% compared to 5.5% in Great Britain. The rate of lung disease is 8.1% compared to 6.3% there (see table).

Heredity, age, and gender play major roles in chronic diseases, but the importance of lifestyle is gaining recognition. Many cancers are linked to smoking, drinking, and overeating.

Nearly two thirds of Americans are overweight, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). "Being overweight or obese can cause several types of cancers," says Marji McCullough, ACS senior epidemiologist, Atlanta. Reducing weight by 10% can lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol, and diabetes risk. Researchers are finding that weight gain and other conditions blamed on aging are linked to a sedentary lifestyle. A recent Duke University study shows that sedentary individuals gain an average of 2 pounds in six months.

The study also reveals that adverse effects of inactivity can be reversed. "The good news is a small amount of activity can make a big difference in reducing risks for heart disease, stroke, or diabetes," says Jennifer Robbins, Duke University exercise physiologist.

Only 50% of Americans get enough exercise to reap health rewards, according to the CDC. "Farmers say they get exercise because they work," Jackie says. "But it isn't enough."

Louis quit milking after his heart attack, turning it over Jeff and Holly, his son and daughter-in-law. It allows him to enjoy antique tractor rides and NASCAR races.

The Schmidts have cut saturated and trans fats. They follow a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. Louis doesn't diet, but carbohydrates are a concern. "Diabetes runs in my family," he says. "My mother had it and so does my brother. I want to avoid it if I can."

Jackie says that changing meal plans isn't difficult. "There are lots of recipes once you start looking," she says. "It's real easy to substitute ingredients." Rhonda Strebel, Shawano County (Wisconsin) Rural Health Initiative, regularly visits to monitor Louis's blood pressure, cholesterol, and glucose.

"Routine checkups tell you if lifestyle changes are needed," she says. "I help people understand their risk factors. They can't change genetics, but they can control their lifestyle. I always tell them that knowledge is power."

Louis Schmidt admits he rarely used the 1941 Farmall H. He certainly never spent money on it. But five years ago, he decided to completely overhaul, sandblast, and paint it. Three years later, he bought and restored a 1951 Cockshutt 40, just like one his dad had traded years ago.

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