A dairyman’s journey to better health

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Alan Kozak
Alan Kozak, of Millersburg, knows firsthand the effects exercise can have on the mind and body. CrossFit has made everyday farm tasks like pushing up feed, stacking hay bales, or even moving Jersey calves easier. (Catie Noyes photo)

MILLERSBURG, Ohio — As a 54-year-old farmer, Alan Kozak understands running a 400-head dairy can be taxing on the body — as can running any type of farm operation.

Kozak had always been a fairly active guy. He enjoyed running in the evenings after a long day of work and even ran a marathon and biked 100 miles. But his exercise regimen slowed down when he decided to dairy full time around 25 years ago. Then, his exercise started to come more from the farm chores.

When he first started milking, Kozak didn’t have a four-wheeler to go get the cows. “I would put on my tennis shoes and run out to get the cows out over the hill,” he said. “Since we have become more mechanized, I’ve spent more time sitting on my rear end,” he joked.

Depression

As the farm life demanded more of his time, regular workouts fell to the wayside. And then, 2012 came. “That was the drought year. It was a bad year for us,” said Kozak. Milk prices were low and the Kozak family, as well as many other small dairies, felt the pinch. It sent Kozak into a bit of depression.

During the winter, his children were training at a soccer camp near Cleveland and because a lot of parents were traveling with their children, the trainer offered the parents an opportunity to work with the trainer while they were there. Kozak was the only parent to take advantage of the program.

“I don’t know if it saved my life, but it helped me mentally. It was my outlet,” he said. “I remember telling the trainer, this makes me feel so good.”

Stay FocusedFarm demand

Things started to pick up again back at the farm in Millersburg, and Kozak couldn’t justify driving three hours to work out a few times a week. But he had felt the difference just a few days in the gym had made on his body — and he could also feel it slipping away the longer he spent away from the gym.

Simple farm tasks started to become more challenging, physically, than they had in the past. “I had a cow calve in the straw-bedded pack, and I was just trying to move her into a pen,” said Kozak. He continued to make slow back and forth movements, trying to guide the cow. “I had to stop and catch my breath,” he said.

Even sitting down and bending over to put on his shoes or going up a flight of stairs was becoming a challenge. “I felt myself getting older and slower,” he said. “I went to the doctor and realized, I need to do something.”

CrossFit

So he got in touch with a local man he knew who was doing CrossFit workouts from a home gym. “I was hooked,” said Kozak, but his farming schedule didn’t quite match the gym schedule.

So he found a local CrossFit gym that offered more hours and opportunities to work out between his demanding farm schedule. Farm chores such as pushing up feed, stacking hay bales and shoveling sawdust used to wind him, but not anymore.

We decline physically with age. But we can slow the decline.

CrossFit also taught Kozak proper lifting techniques so he is less likely to throw out his back carrying around a sack of feed or tossing a hay bale. “I’ve started doing a lot more stretching on my own,” he said. “The older we get, the more important stretching is.”

Kozak understands finding the time to work out, especially for farmers, can be a challenge. But he also knows it is worth it. “I sleep better and I need less sleep. My mental clarity is also better,” he said.

Kozak has also experienced how exercise can affect the mood. “Exercise is more effective for depression than medicine,” he said. “I know it does have an effect on my mood,” he said.

Be fit and farm

“We decline physically with age. But we can slow the decline,” said Kozak. He offers these tips for getting started in a regular exercise program.

  • Get a fitness buddy
    Find a partner — or group of people — who is at a similar fitness level as you or has similar fitness goals in mind. This can be a sibling, significant other, friend or even just someone you meet at the gym. It’s easier to get motivated when you have someone else relying on you and pushing you to do better. Plus, wouldn’t it be a lot more fun to have someone to do it with?
  • Set goals
    Kozak doesn’t think weight loss should be a goal. Everyone carries weight differently. Instead consider being able to run a mile without stopping, lowering cholesterol, or getting through your regular farm chores or daily activities without getting winded.
  • Scale to what you can do
    Ease into a fitness program. It should be a marathon, not a sprint, Kozak reminds us. Don’t feel you have to push yourself to match everyone else in the room if you are not ready for it. Everyone is at a different fitness level.
  • Finding time
    Kozak’s wife, Sharon, and the employees cover for him when he’s not at the farm. “I don’t exercise the same time every day, so I try to let them know when I am going, so they know they will not be able to reach me for that hour I am at the gym.
    “Occasionally, I keep my phone in my pocket on vibrate if I think I may be needed while I’m at the gym. I have taken the time to explain to my employees why it is important in general, and specifically for me, to exercise.”
    He also tries to combine trips to the gym with farm errands like running for parts, a trip to the vets, picking up feed, etc. He also gets up early and/or works late so he can have time to exercise when the gym is open.
    Initially it will be a time drain, he acknowledges. And if you are going to start a program, “start in the offseason.” Don’t start May 1 if you are a dairy farmer or April 1 if you’re a crop farmer (same applies for harvest months). Winter tends to be a little slower and gives you more time to develop a routine. If it’s something you really want to do, you will make time for it.
  • Nutrition
    “I eat as much as I want, I just watch what I eat,” Kozak says. “I cut back on bread and sugars and increase protein on days I plan to work out. I snack on apples and almonds and I am starting to eat more avocados. Most importantly, drink lots of water.”
  • Wear proper clothing
    You can’t wear your regular barn clothes to the gym. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on new wardrobe, but make sure it’s appropriate for the level of activity you are doing. Consider moisture-wicking clothing if you sweat a lot, or compression clothing, which holds muscles in place and helps with blood flow.
    The most important is proper footwear. Invest in a good pair of gym shoes, Kozak advises. “Your boots or a pair of cheap canvas shoes do not provide the support you need for intense exercise. They will cause more problems down the road.”

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