Raise a barn, feel the burn: It's Amishize!

Who need Pilates when you could be churning butter and plowing fields?

Observations

January 18, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Staff

Is God sending a fitness message or just exercising his sense of humor? According to a newly released study, the Amish, those technology-shunning, buggy-driving, gravy-loving, devoutly Christian "Plain People" -- you know, the Dour Ones who won't crack a smile even if gang-tickled -- may have the last laugh when it comes to good health.

We've got the cars. They have legs of steel: The study found Amish men on average take 18,425 steps a day, about nine miles of walking; Amish women, 14,196. (Most "English," the Amish word for other folk, spend more quality time on the couch and have trouble breaking the 7,000-step barrier.)

We feast on Big Macs. The Amish cook their own fat-rich food, but have an obesity rate of only 4 percent, which more than favorably compares to 31 percent for adult Americans: We might as well be farm animals fattening ourselves up for market.

This has to be the biggest PR bonanza for the Amish community since Witness, that 1985 culture-clash cop-drama in which Harrison Ford memorably waltzed petticoat-impaired Kelly McGillis around a barn floor to the sounds of Sam Cooke warbling on the radio. (Then again, the only other recent time the community attracted much attention was in October, 1998, when two Amish homies from Pennsylvania tried making a little extra hay the new-fashioned way: dealing cocaine.)

For their study, "Physical Activity in an Old Order Amish Community," a team of researchers persuaded 98 Amish men and women in southern Ontario, most of whom work family farms, to wear pedometers for a week and answer detailed questions about their eating habits.

Now, Old Order Amish strictly adhere to a life of dusk-to-dawn manual labor. Their daily existence is decidedly more rigorous than that of relatively sedentary Amish in other parts of Canada and the United States; call 'em the Cushy Amish who, like bears in Yellowstone National Park, have become overly dependent on the kindness of tourists and now make their livings selling furniture, hex signs, and shoofly pie.

Tote that bale

The lessons learned in Ontario can be conveyed as biblical wisdom: Thou Shalt Not Covet Thy Neighbor's Stairmaster.

Despite all the advances made in training techniques and weight machines, despite the advent of Lycra clothing and step aerobics, despite the collective fortune spent on health club memberships, people generally were in better shape before formal exercise was invented.

As David Bassett, a sports medicine professor at the University of Tennessee and lead researcher on the Amish study, observed: "The Amish were able to show us just how far we've fallen in the last 150 years or so. ... Their lifestyle indicates that physical activity played a critical role in keeping our ancestors fit and healthy."

The non-Hollywood Men in Black are six times more active than males in industrialized countries. That's "almost mind boggling," says Bassett. "If somebody runs 10 to 15 miles a day, I think that's probably the same level of [energy] expenditure as the Amish farmer."

Surely, there are marketing possibilities here for savvy, Old Order entrepreneurs, starting with a series of "Amish Farm Fitness" videos. Think bigger, and a chain of "Body by Jacob" health clubs makes retail sense, clubs equipped with butter churners that build forearm strength and slab-of-beef pecs, with calf-birthing simulators that provide a unique full-body workout.

Americans love a good fad. If Plain People Chic ever catches on, there's no telling where it might end. With the creation of an Amishman Triathlon, a 19th-century endurance test featuring 10-acre speed plowing, a thousand-teat milking marathon, and 30-mile buggy race? Why not a Pamplona-inspired annual "Running of the Cows" through the streets of Lancaster, Pa.?

Chase that chicken

Unfortunately, the Amish have this thing about money; namely, the hell with making any if it entails sacrificing simple-living values, or merely plugging in a lamp. They'll undoubtedly let this golden opportunity slip by, just as they sat out the computer revolution.

Their recalcitrance shouldn't stop open-minded individuals from seizing this fitness moment. You can independently incorporate the Amish Way into your life and shed unwanted, 21st-century pounds. For example:

* Build an in-style outhouse: Enjoy a Jacuzzi tub and other modern-plumbing conveniences, but install them inside a bathroom situated at least 20 yards from your home. That extra walking adds up. Soon you, too, will be logging 14,000 or more steps a day and feeling better for it.

* Experience ultimate car pooling: It's simple -- sell your vehicle and purchase a permanent time-share in a neighbor's. Your family gets the car Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. On off days, take public transportation or walk. Dare to be bold: Try riding a horse to work on "Throwback Thursdays."

* Savor do-it-yourself, family-farm dining: Twice a week, make your evening meal from scratch. Completely from scratch: use only home-grown vegetables and small animals raised in the back yard. Amazingly, you can burn up a good 500 calories just chasing down and butchering a chicken.

Will many of us be this proactive about our health? Of course not. We got fat and lazy by being -- fat and lazy. It likely will require a powerful push to move millions of slugs in the direction of leading less stressful, more physical lives.

In truth, it likely will require the release of a bombshell follow-up study. Everybody knows what motivates Americans. One can only hope David Bassett and his nosy colleagues already are hard at work on "Sex Lives of the Old Order Amish: Who Said Those Buggy Whips Are Just for the Horses?"

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