I lived for most of my 20s in rural or semi-rural locations. Exercise was built into my routine: shoveling snow or horse manure, carrying firewood, hiking right outside my front door, carrying hay bales – the endless tasks of keeping the household alive. I spent two years in Seattle, but I commuted on public transit. Miles of walking was built into every day. It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles that I struggled. Suddenly, I was neither in a dense, public-transit friendly environment – so walking was out – but I also wasn’t living a rural lifestyle anymore. The hours each day of low-impact, high-repetition, varied exercise that characterizes many rural lives suddenly ended and was replaced by me working on a computer 60-70 hours per week as I began my professorship. Within a few years, my sciatica flared, my neck and shoulders pinched, and my anxious stress-related energy mounted. I tried joining a gym and doing Crossfit. The result was a torn oblique abdominal muscle, frustration, and a growing realization that I hate exercising indoors and I dislike having no purpose being physical labor.
Then I came to the farm. I’ve been here a month now. And I can feel my body returning to its former state, before I moved to LA six years ago. My neck and hip pain have receded. I expend anxious energy pruning tomatoes, harvesting cauliflower, and focusing on how soil feels. I expected to feel really tired in returning to 13 hours of physical activity each week, often in heat. But I don’t. Instead, I feel buoyant and energetic. I get home and still have lots of energy to clean, tend my small but growing home garden, and write. The type of activity I’m doing is just right: it’s low-impact, it is natural and semi-repetitive motion (but not too repetitious), and it incorporates lots of different muscles. But it’s more than this: it makes sense to my brain, and it makes me happy rather than resentful or tired.
As human beings, we evolved to do physical activity in order to procure food. There is something deeply satisfying in doing so. It makes sense to us on an intuitive level. Recent studies are also pointing to increasing evidence that our mental health and our gut health are entwined, and that encountering microbes that exist in healthy soil – on our bare hands or feet – help generate a healthier GI tract and improve our mood. An organic, sustainable small farm like Sarvodaya Farms is a holistic health plan: the right kind of physical labor is expended as an input, and the farm provides returns in the form of healthy, fresh, whole food. So many of our health issues in the United States – heart disease, diabetes, depression – are linked to not sedentary lifestyles and poor quality food. A return to the garden, the small farm is just what Nature ordered: providing the right balance of exercise, sunlight, soil microbes, focused activity, and healthy whole foods to make us not only healthier, but happier.