when is a workout a workout?

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me garden shovel

There are a lot of things that changed when I transitioned from living the city life to living in the country last summer. We can no longer just quickly pop-over to the Starbucks down the road to grab a latte. Instead of seeing the stray cat at our apartment every now and again, our wildlife viewing now consists of coyotes and deer and these really giant birds I have yet to identify. There’s no stopping at the health food co-op on my way home from work for a pound of grass-fed, organic ground beef anymore. Amazingly enough, changes like that were super easy for me to get used to. But the big change I’m struggling with? Figuring out when I’m exercising.

sap feet

It’s sounds silly, doesn’t it? How does someone not know when they’re working out? But the truth is, before we moved here, my entire fitness life was tied to living in the city. Sure, I grew up a country girl, but I never “worked out” before age 18. I was in volleyball and color guard and basketball. I carried firewood and shoveled mulch and climbed trees. It never occurred to me to go hop on a treadmill for 30 minutes because I needed to exercise. Because I didn’t need to. I remember a particularly hellish summer in middle school where I had to go to volleyball practice for four hours in the morning and then come home and clear trees and briars for hours because we were putting in a lake. My life was exercise. Even if I wasn’t “exercising”.

Then I went to college in a city and it took years (years!) for me to understand that, yes, indeed, I needed to exercise my body now. I needed to use the gyms and use the running paths and use the city parks, because there wasn’t much firewood carrying or briar-clearing in the city. It wasn’t until I hit my mid-20s that I really got used to the idea of “working out” in the sense that it was something to check off on my to-do list. It wasn’t something that just happened in the goings-on of my day-to-day life anymore. I had to make a concerted effort to go out and exercise my body.

bottle gym workout gloves

And that stuck. I got good at it. I got good at carving out an hour to go to the gym with no purpose other than exercising. I got good at heading out to the running trail on Saturday morning just for the sake of exercising. My entire mindset started to form around this concept of fitness. I never considered just living my life when I was a kid to be “fitness”, but this, this buying gadgets and going to the gym and lifting weights and running and getting on cardio equipment and taking a Zumba class, that was definitely “fitness”.

So then I moved back. I moved back home. I moved back to the country. I thought it would be a simple transition because, after all, I grew up here, but I’m slowly realizing that living in the city took hold of me in a lot more ways than I thought. And fitness is one of them. I’m really struggling with a battle between my body and my mind. In my mind what I’m doing isn’t working out because I’m not on a cardio machine or wearing a heart rate monitor or in a gym or at a Zumba class. But my body? My body is sore and tired from just a few hours a week of work outside. And this is just the tip of the seasonal iceberg. It’s going to get harder, it’s going to become more work, it’s going to be hours and hours and hours of hard manual labor. We’re planting a 5,000+ square foot garden this spring. That (plus maintaining the other 9 acres of land) is going to be my gym for the next six months.

seedlings garden

Logically, I know that, really, the whole world of fitness is just there as a replacement for the hard, manual labor that our bodies are used to doing from days of old. We sit at desks and sit on couches and sit in our cars, so to counteract that, we need to go to the gym and run on the treadmill and lift weights. And I realize that my lifestyle now is different from that typical lifestyle. My lifestyle is (at least in the spring, summer and fall) my gym. But still, it’s so hard to erase the years worth of conditioning. The conditioning that says, if you don’t “do a workout” you are being lazy. Somehow, even though I spent an hour shoveling compost yesterday, it doesn’t feel like it should “count” as a workout. Which is ridiculous. If 30 minutes of walking on a treadmill counts, than 60 minutes of shoveling rotting food scraps sure as hell does (especially considering how sore I am this morning).

me shovel

Its interesting, now that I’m in this as an adult, I remember back to my parents. We always has some kind of exercise equipment in the basement, but it would go mostly unused for the vast majority of the time. I remember they’d use it for a few months, and then stop. I always thought it was so weird that they wouldn’t keep up the habit. So I asked them one day. I asked them why they only stick to their workout routine for a few months and they told me—because that’s all the needed. They only “worked out” in the typical, use-the-weight-machine, kinda way during the winter. As soon as spring sprung back up and the work outside started up again, their need (and energy) to workout indoors fell away. It wasn’t that they were being lazy or undedicated, they were just using the exercise equipment to tide their bodies over until the work started again. And that’s how I’m starting to feel about our home gym. I used it a ton this winter. But as the days get warmer and the outside work starts to pile up, our gym is going largely unused.


And I have to let my mind get used to that. It’s okay. It’s okay for my gym to go unused for most of the year. It’s okay for me to not pick up a kettlebell because instead, I’m doing squats to pick up 60 pounds of maple sap. It’s okay to not get on the treadmill because I have to spend 30 minutes chasing after our adorable, but ornery dog who refuses to come when called. It’s okay to not do any push-ups or lunges because I’m doing so much shoveling and raking. It’s okay. It doesn’t make me lazy. It doesn’t mean that I’m going to gain back all the weight I lost. It doesn’t mean I’m going to get weaker. It just means that I’m using those calories I’d burn in the gym to get stuff done around the property, and that’s just as much of a workout as anything I’d do in a gym.

What do you consider a “workout”?

Cassie is the founder and CEO of Wholefully. She's a home cook and wellness junkie with a love of all things healthy living. She lives on a small hobby farm in Southern Indiana with her husband, daughter, two dogs, two cats, and 15 chickens.

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17 Responses
  1. Julie

    Wow, I really get what you’re saying here. Sometimes when I get home after work I feel too tired to go to the gym and I am so hard on myself for that. Even though a day’s work usually requires me to constantly be on my feet moving, pushing, lifting, or pulling 20-80 lb boxes. It’s especially difficult to feel like I am sticking to a fitness plan in winter when I don’t want to walk to the gym. I just want spring to come since I feel it would be so much easier to just get outside and walk or jog. I’ve been thinking those things and your post reminded me, haha.

  2. GREAT POST! Important, often not-discussed, topic. Great work addressing this within yourself [you will get to the point where the balance of the mind and body comes naturally in due time] and your audience.

    I don’t do much outdoor work with my apartment living, but I sure as hell count every minute I’m shoveling snow or using a push mower as “fitness” time. For certain.

  3. My mom lives in Indianapolis (You know, the BIG city. ha ha) and she has a treadmill and trails and sidewalks, but she never, ever mentions working out until summer rolls around and she’s ready to revive her garden and backyard. She always mentions that “I can’t wait to get out in the garden and work my arms from carrying mulch and lifting stones.” Though my mom was an aerobics instructor when I was a young child, no other activity has come close to the benefits she feels from doing yard work.

    I totally agree with your viewpoints. I didn’t even really know what exercise was until I was in high school because whenever I was active as a child, I was just playing. I was just naturally active.

    I hear people talk about things like, “Oh, I played basketball for about an hour today for exercise” and I have to fight my gut reaction to think, “That’s not exercise. You’re not doing a consistent set of movements over and over on a treadmill or elliptical!”

    I have to retrain my brain too. This summer I want to be ACTIVE, not just working out.

  4. jodi

    Great post! I see where you are coming from since manual labor is your new normal and it is not somthing you carve out a specific time for. Have you thought about investing in a gadget such as a fit bit so your activity is tracked and then you can see & measure the effort you are putting in? I bet you are underestimating your manual labor workout.

  5. I struggle so much with gym-type exercise.. I can’t even tell you how much I loathe the treadmill! The only way to make me consistently work out is to make me feel like I’m not reeeaally working out – zumba class, yoga, etc. So I’m super happy to have my “work outs” built in to my day in the form of gardening and around-the-house type of stuff! It’s the best – you get to work out and then eat some delicious veggies. Win, win =)

    Also, last time we were over at the new house we ran up on 6 GINORMOUS birds that I had never seen before. Just chillin’ in the road and reluctant to move and slightly terrifying looking. I found out they were turkey vultures. Could that be your birds?!

  6. If I added a tonne of outdoor work to my day I still think I would keep lifting weights because 1) I love lifting weights and 2) My work outdoors would be benefited by increasing my strength.
    I’d probably drop cardio though.

    You mentioned being in the colour guard as a teenager. What’s colour guard?

    1. Cassie

      Also known as: flags, flag corps. It’s the folks who dance, twirl flags, rifles and sabres during marching band performances. There is also winterguard (which I did, too) that is just the dancing, flags, rifles and sabres indoors without the marching band.

  7. So true! I grew up in the country and we never had a membership to any sort of gym, we were just generally active. Our “workouts” were running in the yard, raking leaves, biking, hiking, playing in the woods and swimming at the lake. As much as I love my workouts, that’s probably a better and more fun way of being active, unfortunately it’s just not possible in the city. BTW – looks like I’m going to have some serious garden envy this summer, that’s going to be amazing!!

  8. I love this post 🙂

    I remember, as a kiddo, playing two baseball games in the morning during the summer only to come home and push mow the “islands” of our lawn, collect sticks/branches, work in the garden, then take a dip in the pool. No wonder I was a string bean! Hoosier summers…

    Good luck making the transition into Spring. You’ll get into the swing of things and your mind will settle. OR you won’t even have time to compare work vs. exercise since you’ll be so pooped from working all that land!

  9. I see a lot of people consider cleaning (i.e. vacuuming for 20 minutes) as exercise. I think stuff like that is going to set them up for failure (especially if they’re counting their calories and go over because in reality dusting and cleaning the toilet does not burn that much).

    That being said, gardening most definitely is a workout! We have a huge yard and all the squatting and stuff makes me sore the next day. Also, all the preparation and maintenance we have to do for our veggie garden works up a big sweat for me. Like dripping…I almost sweat more doing yard work than I do on an elliptical. 🙂

  10. Great post! Yesterday I spent the morning shoveling sod and compost, and then my dog walk turned into 7 miles on our local trails (because when the sun shines in Seattle, you have to soak it up while you can) – I woke up this morning feeling like I had done a full-body workout at the gym!

  11. Lina

    Get a fitbit or a pedometer 🙂 It won’t be able to measure how many weights you lifted (or mulch you shoveled) but it can give you an idea of how much you walked 🙂

  12. Krystina

    I’m finally letting go of the “must know how many calories I burned” mentality of exercise, or the notion that I have to be doing something intense for it to count as exercise. Sometimes a nice walk in the middle of a sunny day is all that I need, and often times, that is my exercise of choice.

  13. Especially if I have fallen off the bandwagon of exercise, I count a workout as ANYTHING I do outside of my daily normal routine that gets me moving and active and breathing hard. It mentally helps get me back to just generally being more active. Washing the car, scrubbing the shower…anything counts for me if it not something I do every day (like washing the dishes). Also, I think this ties in with the whole societal need to compare ourselves to others and to compete. It is like the person who goes out for a wog and says they aren’t a *real* runner. Huh? What is a real runner anyway? What is a real workout? Anything that gets you to use your body, move, walk, lift, bend, reach…and it doesn’t matter if anyone else would classify it as a workout. No need to justify, even in our own heads. Just move! That’s what I keep telling myself. Just move. Of course, like you, in the spring/summer/fall getting activity is so much easier!

  14. Julie C

    To me it’s anything that gets you moving! Even better if it makes you sweaty and/or gets your heart rate up. I’ve been doing some snow shoveling here in CO, and I definitely counted that as my workout for the day.

    Years ago, when I moved to Chicago as a broke student, I lost a ton of weight my first year there. I didn’t really know why, because I wasn’t eating that healthy (lots of $5 pizzas and PB&J’s going on), or working out at a gym. But then it hit me… I had moved from car-centric California, to a big city without a car, and no money to do stuff like take cabs… or even to bring myself to pay $2 to ride a train or a bus 8 blocks. I walked everywhere. I lived in a 4th floor walk-up apartment. I went up and down the stairs to the el platform at least 4 times a day, sometimes while carrying a ton of stuff for design school. If I had some free time after class, I would walk from there (which was in the western part of the Loop), all the way to the northern end of the Mag Mile. So, just my every day living was my workout!

  15. Awesome post! This is definitely something that needed to be said, but I’ve never really read about on other blogs. This applies to your new life in the extreme, but there are some similar instances in my life as well. Like how we just moved into a new house — spending hours unpacking or painting CERTAINLY counts as a “work out” in my book, especially if I’m sore after. But, like you, my mind has trouble accepting that.

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