Is physical labor good for you?

I sit at a desk most of the day cranking out the brilliant essays otherwise known as columns. It’s not exactly demanding from a physical perspective, although it still leaves one tired at the end of the day. Sometimes even stressed.

Really, writing is hard work. It just doesn’t get your fingernails very dirty, although broken nails are a hazard.

Still, despite a certain lack of both coordination and patience, I do like to do stuff. Before electronic ignitions and computers ran cars, I could enjoy a Saturday morning fiddling around with my car, changing out the points every couple of months (worn distributor shaft), checking the timing, fiddling with belts and hoses and so on. It was fun and made the car happier. Changing my own oil also saved me a bundle.

Bicycle maintenance does the same thing for me now. Bicycles are simple, not horribly demanding, less frustrating than plumbing, and you get to take a ride on the result. The improvement from even a minor repair is usually immediately apparent, providing instant positive feedback.

Recently I read a good article in the NYTimes, which you can see here (click!) going into the idea on a much deeper basis. The author has a master’s degree but ended up doing pretty brain-dead and frustrating work. Lacking satisfaction, and challenge, he lucked into motorcycle repair and sounds much happier.

His essay is on why this is not a bad thing, but also asking why society doesn’t consider manual labor to be equal to mental labor. It’s a good question.

How do you feel about that? When you have to pay the shop $60 an hour to change the belts on your car, do you consider it money well spent or do you feel ripped off because sure as heck don’t make that kind of hourly rate? Do you wish you could make money repacking bearings and adjusting gear ratios?

Open for thoughts. Americans used to have a reputation as inveterate tinkerers, but now far too many wouldn’t know the first thing about how to kill a chicken, make a chair or even turn a wrench on a bolt to get it loose.

What happened to us, and what do you do to keep your hands happy?  I’d like to do a column in the paper on the result.

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7 Responses to Is physical labor good for you?

  1. What Americans need to know …

    Be careful killing chickens or

    Just sit down and make a lap for someone.

    And righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.

  2. dan s. says:

    Everyone needs to do at least some manual labor, whether it’s cooking or cleaning or mowing the lawn. When I was a teenager I rebuilt our family’s player piano. In grad school I did all my own bike maintenance. Now it’s mostly cooking and yard work, but I wish I had time to work more on my bike and learn more about my car.

    Ok, back to writing…

  3. Cathy says:

    I was happy with the work I did as a CNA a couple of years ago – it was 8-10 hours of running and lifting and carrying things (and people)… but it was less tiring at times than sitting at a desk. I went back to sitting at a desk because, well I enjoy what I do, and the pay for nursing aides is pathetic for the responsibility they have… and because I don’t fare well in female dominated environments (just too much drama for me).

    So I do my physical stuff after work. I don’t watch TV… when I get home, I make sure I have things to do and learn about – mostly yard/house work, remodeling, and cooking. Being a lifelong learner and staying active is what keeps us young :)

  4. Cathy says:

    Just to add, my fiance is a carpenter and loves building things. It’s not for lack of brains to do something else, he’s just not happy if he’s not “doing” something. I think very few of us are actually suited to being overly sedentary. That was a good article in the Times.

  5. flatlander100 says:

    I think this is related. Story in today’s paper about a 90 year old woman who still works full time for the Forest Service in Ogden. And won’t use a cane because she doesn’t want people to think she’s old. Link here:

    Now there’s an approach to work… and life… we can all admire. And wish we shared.

    She reminded me of this from Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:

    “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
    To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
    As though to breathe were life.”

  6. Aptitude for tinkering plays a big role, I think. So does patience. I’ve always considered my mechanical aptitude to be low, but I’m afraid impatience is the real villain.

    In recent months I’ve replaced an over-the-range microwave, put in a new kitchen faucet, replaced half a dozen electrical outlets and shored up major sections of my old cedar fence. Each job took far too long and turned the air blue for miles around.

    I much prefer spending the bulk of blue-collar time doing stuff like jogging, hiking, bicycling, walking. Fixing stuff around the house? Ugh.

  7. Kenneth says:

    It is so true that mental work makes You tired. I was recently laid off from my office job. I found work at UPS 25 hours a week and Home Depo 35 hours a week. After the initial shock to my system suddenly being physically active all day. I actually feel better and have more energy as apposed to being in one place all day sitting and not moving around. This may be the best thing that has happened to me in years. Thank You poor economy you may have saved me from a heart attack at 50.

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