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Forget about the gym! Chicken-sizing will keep you fit. Bonus: Fresh eggs

Andy Rementer
for NPR

In my 20s, I loved running. I called it “my Prozac.” Every week, I tried to run 25 miles. It kept my mood up and my heart healthy.

But when I reached my 30s, my relationship with running soured. My back started protesting the long runs. Then it protested the short runs. Eventually, one morning, I couldn’t walk. My back said, “Nope, no more running.”

For months, I felt pretty sad about this huge loss in my life. I tried other types of exercising, but my back protested it all — biking, yoga, pilates, zumba, you name it. Everything that our society calls “exercising” hurt my back for many days afterward. “Sorry. But we’re done with all of that,” my 33 vertebrae said in unison.

A different exercise mind-set

At the same time, I was reporting on global health for NPR, and I started to realize that exercising per se was a strange phenomenon. Around the world, people don’t necessarily go out and move their bodies with the intent to burn calories and tone their thighs (mmmm … chicken thighs). Instead, they embrace a revolutionary idea: They move — and move quite a bit — with a clear purpose in mind beyond the movement. They move to reach a destination. They move to hunt or forage. They move to take care of animals or tend crops. Or build a structure. Or gather firewood.

“Every day you're doing something from dawn to dusk,” says Esther Ngumbi, who grew up in rural Kenya and is now an entomologist at the University of Illinois, Urbana. “In the morning, you have to go to the river to fetch water and come back. Then you go to the farm during the day and go fetch fire wood. Then at dusk, you have to go fetch water again.”

In other words, Ngumbi was weightlifting, not three times a week but at least twice a day. “I had to carry a [heavy] bucket of water from the river,” she exclaims. “So yeah, I was weightlifting. I was exercising 24-7.”

Tying movement to purpose felt rewarding, Ngumbi says. And yet, here in the U.S. we’ve replaced almost all of this rewarding movement with machines. “The river exists in my home now. The fire stays at my home. And I can turn them both on and off when I need to,” she says laughing. “So now that I don’t have this purpose [to move] and all these things I need to do, I started gaining pounds. I’m just eating more and moving much less.” So Ngumbi started to exercise — at the gym.

But I started to wonder if I could go the opposite direction. If I could take inspiration from people all over the world and add more purpose and meaning to my exercising. “Hmm,” I thought, “maybe this type of movement could be my version of crossfit and barre.”

And so, after a decade of being a couch potato, I launched the most successful exercising program of my life. I bought 15 chicks, two coops and a book about how to raise a backyard flock. And I started chicken-sizing.

To be honest, chicken-sizing is harder than I thought it would be. Way harder. Taking care of flightless birds does tone your core and thighs. Because it requires bending, squatting and carrying heavy loads around your yard. One weekend, I tracked what chicken-sizing involved, and I counted about 20-30 squats each day, 1,500 extra steps each day (depending on how many chickens I have to chase back into the pen), and lots of lifting poultry water dispensers up, down and around the yard. They’re not 25 pounds but they’re at least 5.

The pluses of chicken-sizing

So I’ve gotten into way better shape than I expected. And I’ve come to realize there are some big advantages to chicken-sizing over regular exercising:

Failure is not an option: You cannot make up an excuse not to work out. You can’t put on your chicken-size clothes, sit around for 30 minutes and decide, “Oh, I’ll just do it tomorrow.” The ladies depend on you and need care every single morning and every single night. And if you don’t do it, they might die. They could be eaten by raccoons or skunks (who eat their heads, drink their blood and discard their bodies). Or they could dehydrate or freeze to death. The stakes are just too high.

And so you do it. Twice a day. Every. Single. Day. And it becomes so routine, so habitual that you don’t even realize you’re exercising. The task is part of your life, similar to going to the bathroom. You don’t put it on your calendar. You just do it. (Yes, some mornings early in this new regimen you curse the fact that you bought 15 chickens, but that sentiment passes after a few months).

You don’t have to change clothes: What a huge time saver! But also, cutting out that simple step makes it so much easier to actually get up and do the task. As all the habit experts say, “Make it easy!”

You always have a workout partner: In my case, I have 15. Sure, their brains are the size of two peanuts. But they are happy to see me — oh so happy. Every morning and evening, they cheer on my chicken-size routine with gusto! Squawk. Bah-Baaaahk!

And if I need a break, I can pick up a chicken and snuggle her soft feathers. Often it’s a white bird named Marshmallow. Talk about a feel-good, in-the-moment, five-senses experience. Sure, snuggling a hen isn't quite the same as a dose of Lexapro, but twice a day, it comes pretty close.

(One of my friends asked me the other day if I do “self-care,” and I said, “No.” And she responded in the funniest way. “Yes, you do. You raise chickens.”)

And there's an added bonus that no gym workout will provide. Eggs! Holy moly, eggs! The best eggs you’ve ever eaten in your life. Some days I sit at the breakfast table and just marvel at how good these eggs taste. Or I’ll stare at our egg rack on the kitchen counter and appreciate the color of the beautiful shells.

Just this morning, I fried one egg for myself and one for my daughter. As we sliced into the golden-orange yolk, she said, “Whose is this one?”

“Oh, that’s Marshmallow’s,” I said. “She’s so amazing. Thank you, Marshmallow.” And thank you, chicken-sizing.

Given all these wonderful aspects of chicken-sizing, I wondered if Esther Ngumbi missed raising chickens or fetching water at the river.

“I do miss it,” she says with a sigh. “But some of it, I don’t miss,” she counters. “For example, sometimes I had to wake up early in the morning, and it was so cold.”

So maybe chicken-sizing is so great because it gives me purpose but I don’t actually have to do it. My family would still eat if I forget to close their cage one night and a skunk comes to decapitate them.

In other words, maybe chicken-sizing is a sweet spot between moving all day because your livelihood depends on it and moving only because your body sits down all day.

Ngumbi agrees. “Yes, maybe there is a sweet spot to exercising,” she says. “I actually really enjoyed going to fetch water at dusk. It was so refreshing with the cool evening breeze. It just all of a sudden relaxed you. So I felt like I was meditating while walking” — meditating, weightlifting and accomplishing a necessary task of life.

Science journalist Michaeleen Doucleff is the author of Hunt, Gather, Parent: What Ancient Cultures Can Teach Us About the Lost Art of Raising Happy, Helpful Little Humans.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Michaeleen Doucleff
Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.
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