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Country Conditioning | Fall 2007 Out Here Magazine

Get your kids healthy with farm chores

By Hannah Wolfson

With childhood obesity at the forefront of current health issues, rural parents just may have the solution right in their back yard: farm chores.

Having youngsters do their part around the farm may provide a good dose of physical fitness, says Dr. Wayne Myers, a retired pediatrician and rural health expert. Myers, former director of the Office of Rural Health policy for the U.S. Department of Human Services, lives on a 100-acre farm in Waldoboro, Maine.

"It just intuitively seems pretty clear that being out and physically active and having responsibilities is, over the long haul, more desirable in terms of physical health than a lot of other things, like being slack-jawed in front of a glowing screen," Myers says.

In fact, traditional farm cultures, such as the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, are more physically active than the general population, experts say.

About 7.2 percent of Amish children are overweight, compared to about 25 percent of American and Canadian children as a whole, reveals a recent study by the American College of Sports Medicine.

"Farming is just moving things — moving water, moving feed, moving manure, moving crops," Myers says. "That is physical work."

There are two ways to look at farm chores, Myers says:

Routine chores, such as caring for an animal, offer regular exercise and teach responsibility and other skills. Children as young as 5 or 6 could take charge of feeding, watering, and cleaning up after chickens, Myers says. An older child could take on a calf or eventually a cow, and teens are likely to start driving and maintaining tractors and other equipment.

Helping out just 30 minutes before and after school can meet the Center for Disease Control's recommendation that children get an hour of physical activity most days of the week.

Seasonal chores, such as planting or harvesting, can provide extra challenge. For example, Myers says, each fall he gets help tossing thousands of hay bales, each weighing about 40 pounds, into his barn loft.

"If you load and stack 700 bales of hay, that's probably better than a $20 workout at the gym," Myers says. "You could make a similar point about feed and fertilizer being handled in the spring, and seasonal planting and harvesting chores."

As you assign chores, don't forget about safety, especially around livestock and heavy equipment.

In the long run, helping on the farm could guide your youngster toward a life of physical fitness that many city kids are leaving behind.

Myers likes to quote a sportswriter friend from eastern North Carolina who says urban high school football teams there get nervous when it's time to play their country counterparts, even though the rural schools have smaller teams and fewer resources to draw upon.

"They have the conviction that a fair number of those kids are what they called 'farm strong,'" Myers says. "That's not the kind of strength you get from pumping iron in the gym."

Hannah Wolfson lives and works in Birmingham, AL.