How do Amish exercise?

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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    25 Comments

    1. Lisa

      I’m a bit surprised to hear that the Amish are health conscience and exercise. I’ve seen their cookbooks with fat-laden recipes and even though it is from fiction books, the impression I get is that most Amish women are “pleasingly plump” and that the Amish frown upon being thin. I had always assumed this to be true since theses authors claim to have personal knowledge/relationships within the Amish community. Very interesting.

      1. I think many Amish smile upon being healthy, and some do have weight concerns…I don’t know that being plump would be seen as a virtue though may be the sign of a good cook 🙂 (don’t they say never to trust a thin chef?).

    2. SharonR

      How do Amish exercise

      I would think their exercising is their daily operations of their livelyhood, carpentering, farming, baking, food prep, walking the farm, bending, stooping, carrying for farm animals, family, gardening, cleaning their house, chopping firewood, and the list goes on. I’m sure not all Amish work on the farm, but seems like any type of labor they are in, it’s not really sedentary. Even riding a bicycle, driving a team of horses, and walking all give them lots of exercise.

      While in Lancaster, visiting some of the establishments and shops, I noticed all shapes and sizes of the women and men seemed to be on the trim side. I’m sure they have personal health problems just like others, too.

      As far as their food, it is so yummy—Laden with butter and sugar, etc. you eat what your body needs and no more–not to gorge yourself silly. Plus if they grow their own vegetables, grains, meats, etc., they are not getting all the “preservatives”, etc. that the rest of us get, when we take items off the grocery store shelves. I admire them for that! I wish I had their energy, to be able to have a garden, work it, make the bread, etc……but, in this day and age, one gets used to “store bought”, which is never as good!
      SharonR

    3. Exercise, Holmes County Style

      As we drive back to Maryland by way of Millersburg, Berlin and Walnut Creek, I am often amazed at the sight of an older woman pedaling a bike. Of course, you see lots of younger folks on bikes, too.

      1. Bikes I think are a great way to get this type of exercise. I’m not sure scooters are as handy for aerobic activity though. I’ve only ridden them a few times but found them more clunky and not able to take you as far. Pushing uphill gets the blood going though 🙂

    4. Jo Sweatt

      In Intercourse They have scooters as bicycles are banned by the bishop. I saw an older woman probably 70+ pushing her scotter down the road so fast and barefooted of course. I don’t think they would need to “workout”. Their lifestyle is a workout!

    5. Dale

      Exercise?

      I think you may be under valuing the exercise that can be had sweeping out a house, washing windows, digging a garden, beating a rug, kneading a weeks worth of bread, hanging out a wash… And someone has to look after the family horse which means mucking out a stall, hauling water and food and currying the animal before and after every use.

      1. Difference between aerobic and other exercise

        Interesting and I may be under-appreciating the nature of some of the work done.

        I think we could make a huge list of calorie-burning work tasks Amish perform. However I think a lot of what you and Sharon list above are not typically cardio/aerobic activities, and we get health benefits (heart, controlling blood pressure, helping prevent diabetes, not to mention mood-enhancement) from those aerobic activities which I’m not sure things like kneading bread or gardening give us (though they do burn energy and work our muscles). Some activities are debatable and would probably depend on how vigorously they are done.

        http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/aerobic-exercise/EP00002/NSECTIONGROUP=2

        It’s a safe bet the average Amish person is more active than the average non-Amish American. However my main point is that I think it’s culturally easier for non-Amish to get a traditional aerobic workout when they “need” one than it is for an Amish person (whether non-Amish choose to actually get off the couch is another question… 😉 ).

        We have fewer cultural barriers and also we look at exercise as an end itself while for most Amish exercise is something you get while you are doing something productive. We can go work out without having a pre-ordained task scheduled to get the kind of exercise we need. It’s culturally acceptable and even encouraged.

        For example I sometimes see photos of Amish visiting the ocean. I always feel a little sympathy as I think they’d enjoy a vigorous swim but most are not going to do that for cultural reasons mentioned in the post, so they are left to wade or are stuck on shore.

        I’m guessing Amish women may have a harder time with this and also men who have moved into, say, shop work–operating a saw or driving a forklift is not the same as the more physically demanding traditional farm tasks. Even farmers’ tasks can vary though with autumn silo filling different than standing on a plow.

        For that matter the nature of Amish work has changed with full-time farming now a minority practice in pretty much all the major settlements (Lancaster, Holmes Co, N. Indiana, Geauga Co, Arthur IL, Allen & Adams Co IN, Nappanee) and in many of these settlements it’s less than 10%. For some Amish diet has changed as well with more processed, store-bought and restaurant/fast foods being eaten which can also lead to weight gain. So I think we’ll see more “basement gyms” like the one above though in some Amish churches they probably won’t ever be accepted.

    6. Simply staying active

      My wife was from a Mennonite family. She was 98 lbs. in school, and is 5’4″ and 117 lbs today at 55. I am 5’5″ at 150 and soon to be 55. We have never seen the inside of a gym, retired from our own business at 50, and thought we would put on the pounds after retirement. We plant about 1/4 acre and plow by hand, haul water, can on the wood cook stove, and eat our own vegetables. Wovel with what I call an Amish snowblower (not a wheel, not a shovel) our driveway and chicken area all winter. We take down trees, haul, split and stack wood for our only heat source over the summer. We walk about 1/2 mile for mail, and another 1/2 mile to keep a neighbors stove going all winter while he’s working. Either of us will mow about a half acre walking, and we both take care of two more rental properties in town the same way. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve showed up to weed, rake, mow, wash the house, clean gutters, whatever, and had the renters pulling out headed to the gym. They are half our age, and need it. We don’t eat at any fast food places, no time to sit and watch TV. A couple hours in church is the only “at rest” time we get. (and there we just learned that not only does the Bible say to NOT work on the sabbath, but turn that around to also mean you are SUPPOSED TO WORK the other 6 days !) Now we’re finishing an off grid log cabin that could easily wear us down. We don’t even think about our weight, it just stays the same. Everyone we give her shoofly and whoopie pies, sticky buns and breads from our wood oven wonders why I’m not 500 pounds. Her secret; she doesn’t eat her own “good stuff”.

      1. SharonR

        Reply to Paul Long - exercise, etc.

        Agree with Paul Long!!! Just what I was talking about —if we could get off our couches, and do a little work — we’d all be healthier, and not have the weight issues we have today….especially the younger ones….everything is “simple”, “push a button”, quick to get done type of thing, just to SIT and watch TV or play with their electronics… We as a generation have let this happen, because some people wanted “easy”…..so here we are…

        I remember my parents were never overweight, (1950’s) when I was growing up, because they worked 6 days a week, and rested on Sunday…the way it should be…..

        Now if you will excuse me, my husband and I are mowing our lawn, and weed whacking, today — have to get moving!! (we live in Florida, so our grass grows all year round!!) 🙂
        SharonR

    7. Mona G.

      I also agree with Mr. Long & Sharon R. people these days are lazy….if they would walk when they could instead of drive, cook more at home, watch way less tv, clean up around their homes….pull those weed that have grown waist high…..they too could lose weight and would not have to go to the gym and pay for it……do a little work around the house and just see what happens…..

      Especially in the summer, you see people sitting on their porches, drinking their pop & beer and their weeds nearly as high as their house….how can people live like that ????? Clean out your garage, mow your lawn, keep your yard clean, eliminate all the pop and junk food and the fast food places, eat more salads and cook more at home, if you do all this, you will not have time to put on weight…..or go to the gym…..you want even need to go to the gym……I sure haven’t seen many fat Amish…….or even very many plump ones either…..some of these people could learn a thing or two from the Amish……just sayin………………..

    8. Anne

      The Contrast

      This post really made me chuckle. I reminds me of the back and forth my Amish son and I have over this issue. When we were with them in MN last fall, Fiona and I would head out the door for a 4 mile run and he would shake his head and grin his big grin. He was bursting to say, “Mama, you can just work some with me today if you want to get a workout.” That’s what he’s said before. But I KNOW I don’t have the upper body strength to help him much with all those chores. So that’s a great example of how our forms of exercise differ.

      And speaking of aerobic exercise, again I had to laugh. I remembered when Ruth was going into labor with their first one last August. Ed had to run 1.5 miles to a neighbors to use the phone. The midwife said this might not be it, to call back when he was sure. So home he went, only to find her water had broken. He repeated the 3 mile loop “as fast as I could run!” They’ve joked that he was much more sore that she was on the day after!

      Also, I ran the Bird In Hand Half last September and ran for awhile with an Amish family. The mom and older girl were in their long skirts, aprons, caps, etc. It was a rather warm day – don’t know how they did it!

      1. Chris

        Hi Anne

        I was just thinking the other day that I was wondering how Ed, Ruth and the new baby are doing. How is their family doing? I know you had written back last year about the awful year they had with their harvest. How is their community doing so far this winter? Would love to hear an update.

        1. Anne

          Hi Chris

          Thanks for asking. We are longing for a letter just now. We sent a box of Christmas goodies for them, and never heard they got it. But in the most recent letter Ed said Ruth is still having some postpartum depression, and the baby is still somewhat fussy. I can’t imagine being cooped up in a small house with no relief possible. The temps are so cold there, for several weeks I don’t think it got over 10 degrees.

          As for their broader community, I only know it keeps growing with lots of new babies and some new families. Some of the families have a better grounding economically with somewhat established businesses or at least experience starting them. Our Ed is always feeling his way, but has lots of energy and ideas so as long as he can muster the dedication to stick with it, I expect he’ll pull through.

      2. Glad for the update, Anne, I think many of us appreciate hearing about their experience. Also your BIH Half-marathon experience came to mind when I was putting together this post. All best to Ed and Ruth, and hope you get that letter soon.

    9. Barb

      I think this is another case of you can’t says always and you can’t say never where the Amish are concerned. I joined Curves in new Holland, PA, for a year, and there was an Amish lady participating in the exercises on the machines. She had a pair of “long black leggings” on under her dress for modesty.

      1. Laura

        That actually makes sense since Curves was founded as a Christian organization (it’s my understanding all the music played is Christian music, for example), and it’s also women-only. So I can see where a Plain woman would feel more comfortable participating at a Curves than at a regular gym, especially if she no longer lives on a farm and as as much physical work to do — or she eats too much of her own wonderful cooking!

        1. Well there you go Barb. As I wrote the line about plain gyms the thought crossed my mind that there may be some people just going to English gyms.

          Laura going by the slightly-suggestive name I would not have guessed at Curves having a Christian background but I suppose there are racier alternatives 🙂

          http://www.cbn.com/700club/guests/interviews/gary_heavin_080403.aspx

    10. Carolyn B

      The following is a link to a news segment aired on Wednesday night on Rock Center with Brian Williams re: the health benefits of standing & walking frequently while NOT sitting the majority of our days. 1 item I gleaned was that even if one goes to a gym after work & exercises vigorously, it still doesn’t undo the effects of sitting at a work-station for 8 hours a day.
      http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21134540/vp/50428556#50428556

      I think the Amish still have the English world beat by a mile.

      1. Well that’s not good news for me Carolyn 🙂 I have thought about a standing desk, sometimes I just improvise on my own using a dresser. Good for the legs after you’ve been sitting a few hours.

    11. Alice Mary

      Practical exercise...

      I personally have always liked “Amish exercise” (for a purpose other than simply one’s health or looks…now, bear with me…). As a teen, I was more interested in exercising at home, doing things like leg lifts, jumping jacks, sit-ups, etc.(not running—my heart defect limited my exercise via my mother who I’m sure only wanted me to live, thinking if I exerted my heart, I’d drop dead—it was a different era…!). But once I married & was working for a living and later became a mother, exercise that didn’t “get something done” (hanging out clothes, mowing, gardening, vacuuming, helping my husband with painting, putting up fences, decks, carpeting,shoveling snow, etc.) wasn’t worth it to me. I was too tired at the end of the day, and being a stay-at-home Mom back then, we couldn’t afford “health clubs.” I still shake my head when I’m outside, doing physical labor while neighbors drive by going to the gym, or jog/run/bicycle (while THEIR sidewalks go unshoveled or they pay for lawn service ’cause they “have no time” to do it themselves.) OK, some may be riding bikes to curtail driving.

      Even if I wanted to join a gym, my spinal injuries keep me from doing several exercises (physical therapists & doctors advice). Working full time (although sedentary) keeps me from keeping my house/yard as neat as I used to (a retired husband and adult son working from home don’t do much “woman’s work” 😉 —go figure, huh?

      I think most of the Amish get ample exercise and other than perhaps PT for regaining strength after injury, I don’t think most need a gym. If nothing else, walking should suffice when combined with all their other physical/manual labor.

      A word to the wise: Never, EVER underestimate the calories burned by a mother with young children…Amish OR English…and the more children, the more calories, at least until the first couple of kids are old enough to be of “real” help to “Mom.” 🙂

      Alice Mary

    12. Donna

      Aerobic exercise?

      I always thought that housework, whilst burning calories and possibly increasing strength, could not count as aerobic exercise. Then, one day, I tried to sing whilst cleaning. I was so out of breath, it was really difficult (I’m a singer, by the way, definitely don’t usually have breathing problems). So I don’t know about those who are generally fitter than me, but housework definitely gives my lungs a good workout!

    13. Amy Unruh

      Biblical exercise

      I think the Amish tend to mirror the exercise of the ancient Jews. They worked hard, but it was all the type of exercise not thought of as aerobic. I’m not sure aerobic exercise is really needed. The Japanese are one of the healthiest peoples in the world, and I’ve heard they focus mostly on light martial arts and light leisurely walking. I’ve always thought it pointless for people to continually try to have easier lives through technology and then go work out at a gym. Instead of using an automatic flour grinder, why not use a manual one and get some exercise in at the same time? Or wash clothes manually (not that I’d really want to go that far). But it is odd.

    14. Lattice

      Hi Amy. I just read your post from “Inside an Amish Home: The Living Room” where you expressed confusion about the Amish desire to not be tied to the world, while many of their actions still tie them to the world, just in a slightly different way. Yes, it is very hard to see where the line is really supposed to be. I think in many cases, even the Amish themselves don’t try to make sense of it – just accept it.

      But here you identify a paradox with society that is seemingly just as confusing… Going to extraordinary lengths to do things with ease and convenience, then PAYING to join a gym in order to get some actual exercise!

      What a smart observation 🙂

      1. Amy Unruh

        You are Correct...

        …we all do things that don’t make sense. And I question them, regardless of people group. 🙂 I’m just one of those people that has to know why.