Making the World a Better Place, One Workout at a Time

Chipping a small tree

This morning I changed into my exercise clothes and "went to the gym." For me, the gym is our back yard, which stretches for 40 acres out our back door and is filled with trees, streams, meadows, and hills. I’ve learned that I can keep myself reasonably fit just by maintaining the area around our home and the trails I have hand-carved through the forest. For about an hour most mornings, I lop, chop, saw, drag, haul, rake, shovel, and chip the excess biomass that constantly encroaches upon the trails and around the house.

The work seems to give me an all-around workout while improving our little corner of the world. I use the word "improvement" from a human perspective of course, but the wildlife does seem to appreciate the easy access through the forest. The deer, bear, and moose use the trails regularly (so watch your step). In fact, this morning I turned around after loading some lopped branches into my garden wagon to find a deer staring at me from about thirty feet farther along the trail. Meanwhile, a squirrel scolded both of us from a nearby tree. I enjoyed the moment, and then went back to work. Routine experiences like that one are just one of the reasons I love living in North Idaho.

While working this morning, I thought about how cool it was to be doing something useful with my energy. I thought about what many people do: pay a lot of money to go to the gym and accomplish nothing. Sure, gym rats get health benefits, but all of that expended energy is wasted, while the equipment artificially isolates muscle development and does virtually nothing to improve coordination or dexterity.

When I’m busy doing physical labor that requires little thought, my mind often wanders. I started to think about what I’d do if I still lived in one of the rabbit warrens we call cities and had my entire life encapsulated in a 1200 square-foot apartment.

Back when that was the case, the grounds were maintained by "professionals" (leading me to a deep-seated hatred of leaf-blowers), so nothing to do there. My wife and I would go for long walks through the neighborhood, which was good aerobic exercise, but didn’t involve any strength-building action. I also did floor exercises at home, like push-ups and sit-ups, but talk about boring! I’ve found that it is much more fun to actually accomplish something useful while you get exercise.

If you are stuck in the city, maybe a gym isn’t such a bad idea. But I have belonged to gyms, and they have a number of serious drawbacks. They cost a bunch of money. You have to drive to wherever they are, dedicating a fairly big block of time to the activity. You often have to wait to get access to the equipment you want to use next, if you go when the gym is busy, which it usually is at any time it is convenient for you to go.

So what alternatives do you have? How can you get exercise and accomplish something useful at the same time?

Well, if you own a home and have a yard, I’ll bet you have all manner of projects that you’ve put off for a long time because they require physical effort. If you break those projects up into chunks and use them for your exercise time, you’ll be amazed at how much you can get done in just a week or two.

Here’s another idea. Take all that money you spend on the gym and give it to a charity instead. In addition, schedule volunteer time with that charity or some other charity that can keep you busy with physically-demanding tasks on a regular basis. Perhaps you help the elderly with yard work. Or maybe you work on construction projects for local non-profits.

I’m not trying to be preachy here. I just figure I’m not alone in preferring to exercise for the sake of accomplishing something useful rather than exercising for the sake of exercising. If you think about it, you can probably come up with all sorts of things you could do that would improve your body and the world around you at the same time.