That may seem a dumb question. Hard work = exercise after all, and “hard work” is one of the bullet points in the Amish job description, for most Amish folks anyway.

However I think there is a difference between the two. What I mean is the 21st-century Western approach to exercise, where we isolate it as its own, often-intense activity done strictly for health, weight loss, and mental reinvigoration.

I can think of few jobs that better fit the description of “hard work” than that of the Amish wife managing a household and flock of children.  I marvel at the stamina of these ladies who are up with the cock-a-doodle-doo and burning the oil late.

However the Amish housewife’s tasks typically do not require the vigorous activity that brings a certain kind of health boost and head-clearing refreshment.  As this CDC page on recommended weekly activity notes, things like laundry and cooking don’t count as aerobic exercise.

In terms of well-being, I also think there’s a difference you can feel between huffing and puffing for 20 minutes vs. activity that “only” makes the bones weary at the end of the day.

Obstacles to exercise

For the emphasis many Amish put on health otherwise–good diet, vitamins and supplements–it would make sense that they’d be exercise believers.  Amish have also gotten good press in recent years for their high level of physical activity and supposed mastering of the “fat gene“.

But as in any population, there are a number of Amish people with weight and diet-related health issues.  Moving away from farming has meant some Amish doing less active jobs, while maintaining a traditional farmer’s diet high in starch and fat.  You do see Amish writings promoting the benefits of regular exercise as well as ads in Amish publications plugging weight loss solutions, indicating that it’s a concern.

That said I think getting cardio/aerobic exercise is a harder field to plow when you’re Amish, for a few reasons.

First of all, Amish plain clothing is not especially conducive to athletic exertion.  If you’re thinking about jogging, full-length dresses and heavy pants make for a more awkward and taxing run.

Second, the running shorts or form-fitting clothes typical of joggers, or bathing suits required for swimming, conflict with both the Amish public dress code as well as with beliefs concerning modesty.

Third, you’d get a lot of looks as you ran past both your English and Amish neighbors–with a bigger issue with the latter.  In other words, it is not a part of Amish custom to do the sorts of public exercise Americans take for granted.  It might seem a silly waste of calories to some, or just not something “our people” do.  After all what good does jogging or jumping rope produce?

I sometimes wonder if my Amish friends ask themselves that very question as I go for the regular runs I do while visiting their farm. They are certainly accepting of this habit of mine, however. My English lifestyle involves sedentary work and different ways, after all.

Wengerd’s Workout Barn?

Amish can potentially get this exercise in various ways.  Riding bicycles, in the communities where they are allowed, is one good example.  These can be pleasure rides as well as point-to-point practical journeys (see the Holmes County Trail or the Pumpkinvine Trail in northern Indiana for examples of well-used thoroughfares).

We’ve seen events such as the Bird-in-Hand half marathon, which has included Amish participants (from what I can tell, mostly young Amish people).  I think this sort of thing is doable when you are a child or youngie, less easy to pull off once you’re married.

Walking at a fast pace can count as cardiovascular exercise; I’d think pushing a mower could also.  Adults sometimes “help” the young in their sports and games as well.

Another Amish exercise solution can be found in the photo below, shared by a reader in Indiana.  The machine you see to the right of the wash setup is a not-uncommon sight in Amish basements (you can see a similar machine in the third photo of this Amish hairpins post).  It makes sense as a way to work out in the privacy of one’s home, regardless of weather or time of day.

amish-exercise-machine

I kind of doubt we’ll see Amish joining Plain-only gyms anytime soon.  But as we see here, some can and do replicate them on a small scale at home.

Moving off the farm and into different occupations and social circles can beget different ways of thinking about health and exercise, making this “workout approach” to burning calories more acceptable in some communities.

I may also be underestimating the amount of cardio/aerobic activity Amish get in their daily work. Certainly some farm tasks require more vigorous exertion than others, and I understand the factory floor can get hectic.  There are probably other ways Amish get workout-worthy exercise that I’m leaving off here.

Likewise, I may be overestimating its importance to one’s well-being (I get fairly miserable if I can’t break a sweat for a few days, but maybe I’m in the minority). And with post finished, looks like it’s time for my run.

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