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Six Fitness Lessons From a Fascinating Study on the Amish
The Amish reveal the wild benefits of farm and manual labor.
You’ll learn: How farming changed human fitness; the upsides of farm and manual labor; six ways to mimic farm and manual labor in your exercise to fill fitness gaps and build grit.
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Ok, onto today’s post …
Last week we learned how our hunter-gatherer ancestors were about 14 times more active than us.
After that post, a few people asked me how transitioning from hunting and gathering to farming changed us.
Those questions came on the heels of a conversation I had with Dustin Diefenderfer, Founder of MTNTOUGH, where we happened to chat about some of the physical upsides of farm labor.
Today’s post will cover:
How shifting from hunting and gathering to farming changed human fitness.
A fascinating case study on the benefits of farm boy/girl strength.
The physical fitness upsides and downsides of manual labor.
Six ways you can weave the good physical aspects of farming into your life to build what I like to call “brickshitshouse” fitness.
Let’s roll …
How farming changed our fitness
Changing from a hunter-gatherer to an agricultural lifestyle made humans fitter in some ways and not others.
Some thinkers suggest that the advent of farming started about 13,000 years ago. Like, one day, 13,000 years ago, we were all hunter-gatherers, and the next we heard about this farming thing and dropped our spears and nap sacks and started planting seeds.
Newer evidence suggests it didn’t happen like this. It wasn’t a clean shift. Most societies seemed to dabble in both for many thousands of years both before and after that supposed 13,000 year cutoff. (Read The Dawn of Everything for more on this.)
But, gradually, most societies shifted to getting more of their food from farming. Doing this made us less mobile in the sense that we covered less ground every day. University of Oxford scholar Kelly Reed wrote:
(E)arly immigrant farmers … gradually replaced and assimilated mobile hunter-gatherers ... A new sedentary farming lifestyle provided greater control and stability over food supplies, which in turn allowed people to have more children and join together in larger, denser communities. (We formed) denser villages and eventually cities …
When this happened, our physical activity didn’t drop. It just changed. Most people in ancient societies participated in farming.
Studies show these prehistoric farmers were fitter than their hunter-gatherer ancestors in some ways but not in others.
They had stronger upper bodies from grinding grain and tilling soil but relatively weaker lower bodies because they no longer covered long distances in search of food.
The research on ancient farmer fitness
To understand ancient farmer fitness, scientists studied the Amish and found they exceed the government’s exercise recommendations by seventeen-fold.
A team of researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Tennessee in the early 2000s wanted to know how hard farmers worked before the Industrial Revolution, which is when the food industry changed from being powered by physical human and animal labor and small-scale farms to machines and big agriculture.
To understand this topic, the scientists had to locate people who were all but passed over by modern technology.
People who, years ago, saw the rise of the machines that could make their lives infinitely easier and more comfortable and said, “You know, we’re going to take a pass on that and do this ourselves,” and never looked back.
Turns out that these people do exist.
There were, at the time, about 166,000 of them living in 150ish-person clusters in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, and even up into Canada, in Ontario. These people followed strict rules that banned the use of electricity, motors, machines, and pretty much any and all modern conveniences—the Amish.
The scientists’ idea was, in theory, pretty straightforward. They’d track the Amish’s daily activity levels.
But the group’s anti-tech rules complicated things. How does one track activity without some sort of … electronic activity-tracking device?
The scientists drove up to a community of Old Order Amish in Canada—they couldn’t call or email—and proposed their idea to the darkly dressed, exquisitely bearded Amish leadership.
“Fine,” the leadership said. With a caveat: The scientists had to ensure that all the Amish returned the activity trackers to the scientists after the study.
The researchers first measured the Amish’s height, weight, and body fat levels.
Then over a week, the Amish men and women wore step counters and wrote down all of their daily physical activity.
Amish men tilled the soil with horses and old-school plows, walked or used horse-drawn carriages to get around, raised barns by brute force, built things with simple tools, and more.
Amish women raised kids, chopped wood, prepared all the food and cooked it on wood-fired stoves, cleaned without vacuums or washing machines, and worked the family gardens.
This lifestyle led the men and women to take about 18,500 and 14,200 steps a day, respectively. They, on average, spent about 43 hours a week doing what exercise scientists call “Moderate to Vigorous Physical Activity,” or MVPA. For context, the government recommends that the average person get 2.5 hours of weekly MVPA for health.
Yes, the Amish exceed the MVPA recommendations by seventeen-fold.
One Amish brother logged 51,514 steps in a single day. The guy walked 25 miles behind a team of five Belgian horses, bending and working to smooth dirt as he did. One Amish sister hit 41,147 steps when she awoke one morning at 3:30am to do barn chores.
None of the men were obese, and only a few women were.
And this was a community of people who invented the whoopee pie, shoofly pie, and something called “lard cakes.” Their daily diet is pancakes, eggs, and sausage for breakfast; meat, potatoes, gravy, and bread for dinner.
They didn’t look like bodybuilders. But they could kick a bodybuilder’s butt doing hard physical labor all day.
The farm and manual labor fitness edge
Farm and manual labor gives people a physical edge and toughness because it’s more functional and occurs over longer durations.
When I spoke with Dustin from MTNTOUGH, we joked about a common observation from hunting guides.
They notice that people who train in the gym leading up to the hunt, even intensely for a year, typically do worse than men and women who work on farms and ranches.
This is likely for two reasons:
Farm and manual work requires the ideal type of fitness to thrive outdoors. It’s a lot of moving heavy loads across the ground, picking up awkward items from the ground and slinging them over a shoulder or overhead, and more. It’s grunt work. And there’s also more of it: the farm boys and girls work all day.
Farm and manual work builds grit. It’s done outdoors in adverse conditions—heat, cold, rain, snow, etc, etc, etc. People who only train in a gym “get out into the backcountry and are totally thrown off by the rough ground, the hills, the weather, the threat of animals, and more, and they often quit,” as one guide in Alaska explained to me.
So long as farm and manual laborers don’t get injured on the job—e.g., having a limb crushed while moving cattle—they seem to (despite some issues) age rather well. One study on a group of farmers from Iowa who were over age 65 found, “Women with a farm work history experience a greater level of physical function and fewer symptoms associated with mental illness.”
6 Ways to Use It
The six tactics below will build lasting fitness that better transfers over to the outdoors and everyday life.
I’m not suggesting we take up farm work. The lifestyle sounds idyllic, and some days it probably is. But other days it involves shoveling horse shit in 20-degree temperatures so … yeah … I think I’ll stick to writing.
But here’s how we can steal some benefits:
1. Ruck on rougher ground
Guides also observe that people who don’t spend much time outside of the built environment are awkward and slow on rough ground. It’s like their brain and body aren’t used to steeper hills and ground that isn’t paved over. Simply doing more rucking on trails fixes this issue.
What’s more, biomechanists at the University of Michigan discovered that the increased challenge of walking or running on rough, uneven ground forces people to burn 28 percent more energy per step compared to paved ground.
2. Occasionally carry rocks and logs while hiking
Gym weights have two qualities:
They’re heavy for the sake of being heavy.
They’re optimally designed for lifting. Think ergonomic handles, balance, etc.
We can use anything for weight, and there’s a benefit to lifting loads that aren’t perfectly balanced. Having to stabilize the weight works our body differently and more intensely.
This is why, for example, it’s easier to lift a 50-pound kettlebell than it is a 50-pound screaming, writhing child.
On your next hike, grab a rock or log. Carry it in all sorts of different positions: frontwards, on each shoulder, across your back, etc.
You don’t have to do this the whole hike and the weight doesn’t have to be that heavy. But having this weird stimulus can fill some fitness gaps.
3. Lift sandbags from ground to overhead
Unlike an iron weight, sand moves when you move it (kinda like the screaming kid example). This means you have to work harder every rep to “lock down” and stabilize the weight. And taking a weight from the ground to over your head is one of the most metabolically costly exercises you can do. So do it.
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4. Throw weights (safely)
“Safely” meaning “don’t throw iron weights.” Use medicine balls or sandbags. Throwing allows you to work and develop peak power because you can release the weight.
Manual labor is a lot of picking stuff up and tossing it, and that works your ability to connect all your joints and produce power.
5. Do farmer’s walks
This is the OG brickshithouse fitness exercise. Walking with heavy weights works everything, all at once.
And grip strength is a hell of a predictor of long-term health. For example, in 1994, a group of researchers in Norway analyzed the grip strength of 6,850 people from ages 50 to 80. Across 17 years of follow up, 2,338 of the people died.
Weaker grip strength was associated with increased all-cause mortality rates, with similar effects on deaths due to heart disease, respiratory disease and external causes … These associations were similar in both genders and across age groups, which supports the hypothesis that grip strength might be a biomarker of ageing over the lifespan.
6. Occasionally exercise easier but longer
Let’s return to our example of how people who train hard only in the gym do worse in the mountains than our farm men and women.
Let’s run what The Brain Trevor Kashey (who you might recognize from The Comfort Crisis) calls “Redneck Analytics,” which is basically back-of-hand, somewhat silly, made-up, but ultimately informative math. A gym goer might exercise at a level 8 intensity, while the farmer might work at a level 3 intensity. The difference is in the length of work, which adds up.
Gym goer: Level 8 intensity x 1 hour = 8 exercise points.
Farmer: Level 3 intensity x 8 hours = 24 exercise points.
Again: Redneck Analytics, but you get the point.
The lesson is to occasionally do exercise sessions that aren’t as intense but last far longer. This is exactly why July’s Burn the Ships is over an hour (most people don’t exercise for more than an hour).
Have fun, don’t die, and be fit like a Amish farmer.
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