Some hard work is good for your health!

Appeared in Brownsville Herarld and Valley Morning Star on April 14, 2013

By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

My grandmother had many favorite sayings that I liked, but one of them always made me cringe. Toward the end of her life when she was deep into Alzheimer’s disease, she would repeat this one over and over every day:

“We’re not here to play, to dream, to drift. We’ve got work to do and loads to lift!”

“Okay grandma,” I would respond with a teenage eye rolling. After all, while I consider myself a very hard worker, I’m totally committed to playing, dreaming and drifting! I think humans have a unique capacity for contemplation and play that fuels our creativity and spirituality. I think kids and adults need to slow down together and do less running around like over-scheduled maniacs.

But my late grandma, born in 1908, wasn’t talking about sitting at a computer or driving to a work meeting. Work for her was planting, scrubbing, sweeping, canning, gathering wood, trudging through a freezing snowstorm in Western Pennsylvania to get to the greenhouses where she tended plants, cut flowers and ran a business with my grandpa. Her less than high school education prevented her from working in an office, yet she was a very articulate, literate and intellectual person. My father also grew up working physically hard, and was out in the cotton fields picking cotton for his sharecropping parents every hot summer of his Depression era childhood in Arkansas. While my dad had some advantages that many didn’t (race, gender, geographic location) enabling him access to higher education and even graduate school eventually, those early years of physical labor instilled in him a work ethic I don’t believe any of my generation has.

Now there are many people in our community and around the world who work too physically hard. They toil at physical labor and are not even paid a living wage. Their survival depends on dawn to dusk effort. I’m not trying to glamorize that kind of life. But I do think many of us, myself included, have lost our appreciation for the physical, mental and spiritual benefits of good old fashioned physical labor. As we move up the formal education and economic chain, we tend to spend more time in sedentary jobs, staring at computer screens, Skyping meetings, texting, driving. Not that these activities don’t constitute work. Believe me, I spend many late nights clicking away on reports and answering emails and probably put in more work hours a day than did my parents since I am always “plugged in”. But I admit I don’t put much time in doing the physical kinds of work that my ancestors did—cooking meals from scratch, carrying water, washing clothes by hand, walking miles to get places, planting gardens large enough to feed my family. While I appreciate modern conveniences, I actually think some of this work is healthy stuff that is missing from our lives.

As I think about the periods in my life I have fallen into low spirits, low energy, stress, boredom or even bouts of mild depression*, what was often absent was that kind of hard work my grandmother was talking about. What often helps me is just doing something physical—diving into a hands-on project that gives a sense of satisfaction and distracts me from my thoughts and worries. We rarely teach or expect our children to do regular physical work either. When I do ask my kids to pitch in, cutting the lawn, hauling branches or even cleaning bathrooms, their initial complaints usually subside and soon enough they come sweaty and dirty and bragging with satisfaction about the work they’ve accomplished.

We are so worried about protecting and coddling our kids (and ourselves), giving them more than we had, and enabling them to reach their “full potential”, we often forget that part of helping a little person grow into an independent and successful adult is teaching them the value of work. So this weekend, if you have the time, put yourself and your kids to work, even just for a few hours, sweeping the porch, mowing the lawn, weeding the garden. I promise you will reap the health benefits, both physical and mental, of a job well done. Then go out and play because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!)

Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! is a campaign of the University of Texas, School of Public Health and Transforming Texas aimed at reducing obesity and associated chronic diseases.

*Warning: Depression that lasts longer than a short time and affects your ability to work or care for yourself requires medical attention!