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Backyard Fitness
By Blair Morrison   View more articles by this author
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August 27

A client of mine called me one Saturday to report on an amazing workout he had just finished.  This workout, he told me, had completely exhausted his upper and lower body, taxed his core, and left him utterly out of breath.  Knowing that this guy was pretty fit and that I had put him through a lot in the past, my curiosity was understandably piqued at this point.  What exercises could he have been doing to get him so depleted?

It turns out he was calling me from his backyard, where he had just finished moving 20 railroad ties from his driveway to his pool.  The ties had been delivered a few days prior and had endured a storm or two, leaving them water-logged and HEAVY.  He explained to me that the only way to move these 6 foot, slippery pillars was to flip them end over end the entire distance (about 150 feet or so).

“Ouch,” was the first thing that came to my mind.  He had essentially just done 500 clean and presses with awkward, heavy objects over uneven terrain. Proprioception, balance, cardiovascular endurance, strength, stamina, power… you name it, he taxed it.  The challenge this presents for the body is staggering.  It’s also a bit extreme.  But it got me thinking- what are the most physically challenging everyday activities and chores that we do?  All that time in the gym, all those miles on the treadmill, all that work to be “fit.”  How and where does it translate?  Here’s a sampling of what I came up with…

Single-Wheel Wheelbarrow Walk
This is a serious test of grip, core, and lower body strength; not to mention cardiovascular stamina.  Not only must you be able to hold on to the handles while in motion, but you really have to work to stabilize the weight, lest it tip too far in one direction and you find yourself picking Peat Moss from between blades of grass.  Now, try doing all of this while moving a couple hundred pounds of dirt or rock up a hill, and you’ll find yourself crawling back to the bottom.

Chopping Wood
One of the oldest, most basic, yet most brutal exercises in the book.  While something about it leaves you satisfied upon completion, everything about it leaves you sore.  It requires forearm and hand strength to manipulate the axe, and flexibility and power from the core, shoulders, and lower body to control the upward arcing motion of the swing.  The downward chop is all abdominals, upper back, and triceps.  Now if you’re chopping a harder wood like oak, you’ll quickly discover that this downward chop needs to be violent and accurate, testing acceleration and hand eye coordination.  In sum, there’s a reason why men have their firewood delivered each winter.

Ditch Digging (with a shovel)
I hate this.  In addition to the pure mental anguish of only being able to move one shovelful at a time, ditch digging just plain wears me out.  Every scoop of soil is an off-center deadlift, requiring the body to counterbalance and engage muscles that aren’t even doing the lifting.  You’re constantly bending over and standing up, exhausting the muscles of your lower back and hamstrings.  But at the same time you’re using your upper back, chest, and shoulders to thrust a metal spear into the earth.  And the rocks, roots, and hardpan that will be in your path?  GOODNIGHT.  GET ME A TRACTOR.

Baling Hay
My hay-baling career lasted one afternoon, when, years ago, I offered to help a friend of mine on his father’s horse ranch.  That was mistake #1.  Our job was to move about a hundred bales of alfalfa from stacks in the yard to the barn’s conveyor belt 50 yards away.  The weight was really awkward, so my back, grip, and traps exhausted quickly from repeatedly deadlifting the bales off the ground.  That was rough.  But managing the weight while walking the seemingly impossible distance was downright awful.  It took away my breath and crushed my legs… every time.  Then, to complete the circuit, I had to hang clean it up to chest level to load it onto the belt.  To the ranchers and cowboys who do this everyday, I give much respect.

Now, I’m not saying you should abandon the gym and trust all your fitness needs to backyard chores (although your significant other may like the idea), just that you could.  Whether it’s at home, at work, or on vacation, you live your life on a set that’s constantly changing.  Your conception of exercise should be painted to match.

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Comment by klgils
5 Aug 2010 01:42 PM
I grow my own organic vegetables and have flower gardens. I can attest to the workout of a day spent in the garden. Deep knee bends, squats, upper body workout, in other words my whole body gets a good workout, pulling weeds, digging, planting seeds etc. And the results are always wonderful. Can't wait for the cooler gardening weather to return to S. Florida.
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