Overstory #24 - Sustaining Your Physical Health
"Our bodies are our gardens...our wills our gardeners." W. Shakespeare
Just as we tend the land for the long-term, we must learn to sustain our own physical health for the long-term. Ultimately, it is not sustainable to create abundance on the land by depleting our own health. While the Overstory normally focuses on concepts and strategies for creating and improving agroforestry systems, for this special holiday issue, we wanted to share with you some suggestions for maintaining or improving your health as you do your work. We hope this information will encourage you to learn more about ways to use your body in the most healthful manner, giving yourself and your community the gift of your sustained energy and vitality.
Far from being a luxury to be indulged in by the affluent, physical health and fitness is the right of every person--especially those who do physical work. Most farmers have a lot of physical activity integrated into their day. However, healthful exercise and hard work are not always accomplishing the same thing. By gaining an understanding of your body and integrating some simple principles into your day, it is possible to make farming activities something your body will be able to sustain for your entire lifetime, with minimal injury, stress, and exhaustion.
There are a number of links and resources in this issue where you can learn more, and we hope you will take some time to look at them. Space only allows us to touch on the subjects by way of introduction.
Condition your body for endurance
Whether activities benefit health and fitness over a lifetime, or whether they wear the body down, leaving a person exhausted and prone to injury, depends not so much on WHAT is done, as HOW it is done. As a farmer, you can maintain and even improve your health while you work. The key is the difference between aerobic and anaerobic exercise.
Aerobic means "with oxygen," and applies to moderate levels of activity that can be sustained over a long period of time, fueled by oxygenated blood that is moved through the body by the heart, lungs, blood vessels. Anaerobic, on the other hand, means "without oxygen," and refers generally to the short bursts of high-powered energy that are fueled by your body's glycogen, or, if that runs short, fueled by depleting your body's blood sugar.
While small amounts of anaerobic activity have their place in any fitness program or regular work day, generally speaking it is stressful on the system and cannot be sustained for very long. If you feel exhausted and famished after you work, or if you experience a lot of strained muscles and injuries, chances are you have been using your body in an anaerobic way. If you or someone you know (and envy) can sustain the same kinds of work while feeling only pleasantly tired at the end of the day, chances are that their system functions aerobically when they work. Regardless of your current situation, you can train your system to function more aerobically.
Activating your aerobic system is very beneficial to your long-term health and energy level. Some types of farming are suited for getting the right level of exercise from the work itself. If your work schedule is irregular, or you find that the nature of your work forces your body into anaerobic activity, you may really benefit from building up an aerobic base with some moderate exercise. The optimal way to train your system to function aerobically is to take a walk (or a bike ride) at the proper pace 3-5 times a week for about 20-30 minutes (not including warm-up).
Ways to activate your aerobic system while you work or exercise:
Warm up. Most traditional farmers started the day with a walk to the fields or forest. Nowadays, many farmers expect to leap out of a truck and start full-speed on their work. This is very stressful on the system, immediately throwing your body into an anaerobic state, shunting blood and oxygen from vital organs to fuel the muscles. Warming up with a SLOW and leisurely walk for about 10-15 minutes before your start in on working will gradually distribute the blood to your muscles, activating your aerobic capacity. This will vastly improve your energy level throughout the day.
Pace yourself properly. Once you have warmed up and are ready to start in on your work, be aware of your breath. If you are aerobic, your breath will be steady, your work will be pleasurable but tiring, and you should be able to speak if necessary. If you are too winded to speak and your breath is labored, you are probably anaerobic. (Note: the most accurate way to learn about your aerobic capacity is to monitor your heart rate. This web site tells you how )
Breathe and keep your stress down. Keep in mind that stress can raise your heart rate above the aerobic zone, even if your body is working at a proper pace. Watching some of the most productive workers or laborers in your area, you may notice they tend to seem relaxed when they work, and focus on the job at hand. This is important for keeping the blood and oxygen flowing to the muscles.
Take care of your back. In our profession, back problems are a major health concern. Back problems can cause farmers to lose months of work, and some back injuries can become a permanent disability. It is very important to take good care of your back.
Maintain proper posture. As you work, walk, or sit, and especially while you lift things, maintain good posture. Stomach in, spine aligned and straight, shoulders back. It is a also good idea to learn some techniques of proper lifting.
Strengthen the muscles that support the spine, particularly the abdomen (stomach) and buttocks. A few minutes a day of abdominal exercises (like sit-ups or crunches) will go a long way in keeping your back healthy.
Balance out your body. Whether you are right-handed or left-handed, chances are you favor your dominant side when you use tools. Whenever possible, try to use your other hand (or foot) equally. In other words, if you normally hold your shovel in your right hand, try switching to your left for awhile during your work day. At first it will be more clumsy, but you will soon improve. Giving both sides of your body a similar level of activity will help prevent your muscles from becoming unbalanced or causing your back to torque too much to one side.
After you work hard, it is important to stretch to prevent stiffness, knots, and soreness in your muscles. Stretching daily will also improve your range of motion, preventing injuries. You may notice if you haven't been stretching and you finally do, that it feels really good! Your sore muscles have been waiting for this.
Stretch while your muscles are WARM. Take short breaks and stretch during or immediately after your work, rather than waiting until your muscles are cooled off.
Take special care to stretch any muscle that you flex while your work. For example, if you spend large parts of your day hunched over, do some moves that stretch your back out in the opposite direction. (Dogs and cats do this regularly, and if you watch them you will get the idea immediately--they will sleep curled up, then stretch completely in the opposite direction to recover.) see for specific stretch positions for different muscle groups.
Hold stretch positions for about 30 seconds. DO NOT BOUNCE or strain-- just get in the stretch position and hold it without forcing, allowing the muscle to extend.
Other factors are important in maintaining good physical health, including a good diet and enough rest. We hope this issue of the Overstory will help inspire you to continue to learn about and improve your health over your lifetime.
Exercise: go outside, to your field or project site, or just the stoop of your home. Inhale deeply, and then exhale, saying, "Ahhhhhh!" Take a few moments to look around, and allow yourself to appreciate all the good things that you have achieved.
We wish you and yours all the best for a healthful and wonderful New Year!
DISCLAIMER: We are not medical or health professionals. The techniques, ideas and suggestions in this document are not intended as a substitute for proper medical advice. Consult your health care professional before performing any new exercise or exercise technique, particularly if you are pregnant or nursing, or if you are elderly, or if you have any chronic or recurring conditions. Any application of the techniques, ideas and suggestions in this document is at the reader's sole discretion and risk, and the authors are not liable or responsible for any damage caused directly or indirectly by the information contained in this document.
Awaken the Giant Within : How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical & Financial Destiny! by Anthony Robbins (fitness pages 439-450).
Sally Edwards' Heart Zone Training : Exercise Smart, Stay Fit and Live Longer by Sally Edwards.
In Fitness and in Health: Everyone Is an Athlete by Philip B. Maffetone.
Stretching by Bob Anderson.
About the Authors
Kim M. Wilkinson is the Education Director for Permanent Agriculture Resources and editor of The Overstory. She has B.A. degrees in Anthropology and Ecology from Emory University.
Craig R. Elevitch is an agroforestry specialist with more than ten years of public and private sector experience in tropical agroforest and forest management. He has a M.S. degree in Electrical Engineering (Dynamical Systems) from Cornell University.
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #64--Homegardens
- The Overstory #46--Human Health and Agroecosystems