How much excercise can you get from manual labor
May 3, 2005 10:47 AM   Subscribe

Unti fairly recently I excercised fairly frequently. Due to having less and less free time, and more and more opportunities to do manual labor, I'm wondering how to estimate the amount of excercise I'm getting from various kinds of Hard Work.

I used to aim for 3 workouts a week, and usually managed to average 2. I used free weights and an elliptical machine. That space is being converted into it's original purpose some time soon (a baby's room) and besides, I find my time after work being more and more consumed with things that Must Be Done.

However, my weekend free time has turned in manual labor for the most part. At the moment, I'm doing a lot of landscaping, and it's pretty hard work. Digging trenches, hauling around dirt, rocks, etc. Lots of lifting, trudging, swinging, what not. Another activity that I do often is that I work for Habitat for Humanity a couple weekends a month, building house frames.

I'm curious about how beneficial this all is. Seems like an 8 hour day of manual labor ought to burn a lot of calories and some of this should probably increase my strength and endurance. How many calories would I expect to burn in an 8 hour day of landscaping? Pretty hard to estimate the other kinds of manual labor I do, since it's extremely variable. Sometimes I stand in one place and hammer all day, sometimes I carry sheets of plywood by myself from one side of a warehouse to another, etc.

I'm also wondering about corresponding risks. I already had an incident about 6 months ago where I pulled the ligaments on my sternum pretty good and couldn't lift anything for months. I was surprised by this: I didn't expect to be able to lift more than my body could handle. I just sort of figured that if it was "too heavy" I wouldn't be able to lift it.

As a closing note, one of the reasons I've always worked out is that when it came time to do things that required strength or endurance, I wanted to be able to do them without struggling. I've also noted, though, that when I merely do what is possible to me, doing that doesn't get easier. Doing something *harder* than what I can already do does make what I can already do easier. So, if I want to easily be able to lift 100 pounds, I need to be "practicing" with 130 pounds. I'm wondering, therefore, if doing manual labor will only keep me where I am, not not serve much to increase my strength. Although, I have yet to see what the effects are of lifting moderate weight over very long periods of time are compared to lifting larger amounts over short periods.

Oh, and, man, I pushed a car a couple blocks the other day. They should have car-pushing-machines at gyms. By which I mean a big empty space with a car in neutral that you can push back and forth. After I was done pushing this car I felt like my legs were gonna fall off.
posted by RustyBrooks to Health & Fitness (7 answers total)
The weightlifting term for the skills increased by this kind of workout is "General Physical Preparedness". People do sled dragging, sledgehammer work, sandbag lifts, etc. Judging by this, I'd say 8 hours of landscaping is likely to be just as good for you as 2 workouts per week, if not better, as long as you slowly increase the difficulty of the workout. As you noted, you won't increase your strength if you always train with the same amount of weight.

As for the risks, always lift with your legs, not your back (i.e. squat down to pick things up). It's slower, but you'll be much less likely to hurt yourself, and you can lift heavier objects that way.
posted by vorfeed at 11:09 AM on May 3, 2005

Oh, I forgot to mention - one of the reasons why GPP is so important is that it exercises many muscles that standard workouts miss. You might not get any better at your usual lifts, but you will definitely get stronger overall, and thus better at doing things that require strength or endurance. Combining this sort of exercise with your usual routine would be optimal, though, because then you'll get the benefit of both styles of training.
posted by vorfeed at 12:05 PM on May 3, 2005

It's not this sort of black and white issue, but for the subject for our discussion, let's keep it basic.

Without an overload in intensity you will continue to see aerobic benefits, but not anaerobic (strengthening) benefits.

Do you bench press? Could you bench press for eight hours? No. How light would the weight have to be for you to bench press for merely an hour? So light that it would be miniscule.

Basically if you're not getting fatigued within a 180 second duration, the work is aerobic, great for your heart, but will not strengthen your musculature (beyond a basic basal level for the acttivity.)

So, you know the guy who does 200 crunches? Regardless if he gets sore the next day, it's aerobic exercise, as the necessary fatigue within a small period of time has not been achieved. He has 'great' abs due to the lack of bodyfat around his midsection and some level of the strength he has.

The human body is meant to adapt to stress....once your outside of the anaerobic threshold, the benefits are primarily aerobic.

Your workout (or in your case, the work, the overload in your landscaping) that occurs isn't what makes you stronger. It's realistically two things: an overload (the fatigue mentioned above) and rest.

Realistically, most athletes are over-trained, working their body so frequently that they are not getting the required rest for their body to adapt.

So, the weekend workload, being long and drawn out in nature, does a good job of fatiguing your body. Workout on wednesday (that's right, just once that week) and you'll maintain your strength.

In "season" athletes (football, basketball, etc) realistically get somewhat weaker, due to the higher level of sports activity without enough rest. Strength Training helps maintain that strength level. It's the off season where most of them pack on the pounds.

If you chose to, you could workout on tues/thurs...and your body would be getting a day of rest (the minimum necessary) between workouts (counting your weekend as a physically stressful activity, but not as direct or intense as weight training.

For the laugh, my former workout partner and I, looking for ways to increase our intensity level, had pushed a car around the lot, to give us some variety from hard legwork. We adapted (after the first couple of times); to make it harder we would then ride the brake. Oh yeah, and maybe then puked.
posted by filmgeek at 12:20 PM on May 3, 2005

Response by poster: filmgeek: some good comments there. I do have some other comments/questions/

Of course, I could not bench press a significant weight for 8 hours. But that's not what physical labor is like either. For example, last weekend I dug a ditch and then filled it with gravel, making a french drain. This involved digging for about 2 hours, followed by a couple hours of fairly light activity (replacing some sprinkler heads and fixing a leak, etc), followed by several hours of hauling buckets of gravel into the pit. So, the hauling part was something like: spend 1 minute filling buckets with gravel, spend 15 seconds carrying gravel, spend 1-2 minutes putting gravel into pit, smooithing it out. So over 2 hours of moving gravel I probably only spent about 10 minutes actually lifting and carrying something heavy. In analogy, I could probably bench press a significant amount of weight for 2-3 reps once every 5 minutes for a few hours -- but I don't know if it would do me much good.

Your comments on stress and rest are well taken. Working to anaerobic failure just isn't going to happen for me working outside, and I don't want it to, since it needs to end when I'm done with the job, not when I can't lift another bucket or swing the hammer again.

Pushing the car was a trip. This lady's car broke down at an intersection, and she ran to get me to help. She steered while I pushed her to the nearest gas station (just a few hundred feet I think), through traffic. Meanwhile my car was sitting back at the intersection with hazards on. Jogging back to my car was the worst 3 minutes of my life so far, I felt like I could barely stand, but I could hear the horns a honkin.
posted by RustyBrooks at 1:13 PM on May 3, 2005

So, since the work is somewhat anaerobic outdoors, but realistically not anaerobic failure (and with recovery time), it's like a more minor workout with lots of sets.

Think of it as general exercise, that has minor strengthening benefits. Get rest. Think of yourself as an athlete in training.

Your workouts on tues/thurs should help the weekend work, or at very least prevent you from losing strength.

important side note - freeweight exercises are extremely skill specific - like throwing a ball. A lack of practice gives you the perspective that you're weaker than you think - as the skill (like throwing a ball, playing a piano) requires constant refreshing.

If you want to go hardcore, I'd suggest on Sunday you lift weights after your gardening work. You'll have to reduce the weights, but you'll be nice and deep into fatigue. Then rest until wends/thurs, lift again. You could actually become stronger, using the gardening work as a warmup/pre exhaustion workout, before you go lift.

Boxers use something similar (to reduce their strength, mimic fatigue effects during training) They jump rope, hit the speed bag, heavy bag, and then finally spar. They're sparring when they're already tired - as if they were late in the fight. The bonus is that they are deep into their reserves and taken a bit of the edge off of their strength - so actually they hit less hard (which is safer). The only negative is that they're more likely to make mistakes/build bad habits deep into their fatigue.

With the woman's car, you worked deep into your reserves, which is why you needed to recover. Approx 3x the duration of exercise returns strength towards 85-90% of fresh strength. In other words, you'd been able to jog back after ten minutes.
posted by filmgeek at 6:47 PM on May 3, 2005

Response by poster: Yeah, I felt fine after a bit. Pushing the car reminded me of the last time I had a workout partner. I work out alone (well, there's someone here, but they're not working out with me) so I tend to take it easier, not only because I don't want to get into a position where I'll hurt mysel, but also because there's no one to spur me on. I used to be very surprised at how much work I could do with someone telling me to do "one more" about 10 times.

I'll see what I can do about keeping some weight lifting in my schedule. It does sound like I don't need to worry (too much) about aerobic activity. That's good -- aerobic activity takes a lot of time (although you can do other stuff like watch tv, listen to music, or even read) compared to lifting weights. I can fit in a good free weight routine in easier than the elliptical. I can also store that stuff easier, it looks like the elliptical machine is going to have to go. I might go back to my apartment routine, which only used dumb bells. It was actually kind of interesting, it was something you did every day for about 15 minutes. There were 21 excercises in all and you'd rotate through them over a 3 week period to keep it interesting. All you needed was a shallow small bench (really just sort of a slab on top of two blocks) and some dumb bells. I think it was by Jake Campitelli

Some of the stuff that I've read about working out is coming back to me, thanks to reading the stuff above. I sort of worked out what I needed to do a long time ago and sort of stopped thinking about it. I need to dig out my book by Matt Brzycki, which was really a lot of help many years ago.

You've given me some stuff to think about, thanks!
posted by RustyBrooks at 9:08 PM on May 3, 2005

Haven't heard Matt's name in years.

He was a buddy of mine - I was mentioned in a couple of his books.
posted by filmgeek at 10:23 PM on May 3, 2005

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