A Day in the Life of a Legless Farmer

I glanced down at my fit-bit in the sun, using my hand to shade the screen. I had 360 minutes of cardio and peak activity that day. The day before I had 240 minutes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Heart Association recommend moderate-intensity activity for roughly 150 minutes per week. Of course, they encourage people to work out beyond this for extra benefits, but how much is too much? There have been lots of studies emerging with data that find heart risk associated with too much exercise and strain can be nearly as bad as not exercising at all. The Goldilocks Zone for Exercise study suggests that more than 360 minutes per week of moderate to intense activity reverses the benefits. (O’Keefe, O’Keefe, Lavie. 2018.) Even risks of AFib drastically increase along with cortisol levels at high levels of intensity for over 6 hours per week. (David, Hastings, Porter. 2020.)

What had I been doing to get over 9 hours of moderately-intense cardio workout in just two days? Well, I planted my garden and some flower beds. See, my great-grandfather Burke, was also an amputee. He had no legs, both missing above the knee, and often could not wear his prosthetic devices. Looking at them (see pictures), I don’t blame him, they were made of wood. Right before he lost his legs he purchased a 40+ acre farm, how’s that for bad luck? A man with no legs, farming 40+ acres back in the 1940’s? Unheard of.

After moving to the farm, a new amputee and unable to outsource himself for manual labor, he invested his all into the land. He tied a feed sack around his waist, and used his arms to propel himself on the ground as he used an unpowered push mower, planted fields of corn and wheat and barley, harvested those crops, and cared for the animals and buildings on his farm. He often worked alone for such tasks, and in fact, the first year the family bought a combine for harvest was the year after he died. Can you imagine the determination of harvesting ACRES of corn, by hand, scooting around on your bum inside a feed sack?

As a result of being raised on stories of this amazing person, I thought it was completely normal when I rode my bike 4 miles to a local greenhouse, brought my plants home, and planted them in the already-tilled garden. I didn’t think asking for help was necessary. (Ok, if I’m honest I did consider offering to pay the 10 year old neighbor boy to help me, but it fell on a day when his family was not at home.) Remembering my amazing great-grandfather I thought, He was doing acres of fields in his fifties, I can handle a twenty foot garden! 

I set to work, moving plants, scooting around on my bum to plant them and utilizing a little garden stool that I wheeled between the aisles and took my good old time while my fitbit monitored my activity. The next day, I repeated the process, this time riding to the greenhouse on my bike and retrieving flowers to grace my beds. I came home and this time it was a bit harder for me as I had a few flats of annuals to place all around the house rather than in the contained and tilled garden. Four hours later, I was staring at my fitbit wondering whether my great-grandfather might have been a tad crazy. I was exhausted!

I knew the next day I could afford rest for my body to recover. But I wonder if my great-grandfather ever got to rest in the same way? Surely it took more than 2 days to harvest that many acres on the farm. Surely the animals couldn’t afford to not eat or be cared for so he wouldn’t have to struggle with buckets of water and feed. I pushed through the planting with my heart pounding, my hands hurting, my arms aching, and sweating in the sun. I couldn’t quit, because he wouldn’t have quit. Much to my relief my parents pulled into my driveway when I was just about done and took over, finishing the work I’d begun. At that moment I decided that next year I might ask for help doing my garden, after all. But truthfully, I won’t ever regret the experience of glimpsing (or rather, peeking) into the everyday life of a man who lived two generations before me.

One study found that heart disease is the cause of death in 51% of lower extremity amputees. (Stewart, Jane. 1992) While this study is limited and outdated in it’s analysis and outcomes there isn’t a whole lot of data out there to glean from. It is a topic much unexplored. Does the heart disease in amputees come from overactivity, as was likely in my great-grandfather’s case, or from underactivity? Was it a pre-amputation condition? If I were a gambling woman I would bet that most heart disease comes from underactivity and the resulting heart and vascular conditions (including diabetes) that stem from it. Regardless, the fact remains that amputation takes a toll on one’s fitness level and heart health in (as of yet), unforeseen ways.

My great-grandfather was an amazing man. He died at only 65 years old due to heart failure. After my experience I wonder if he worked himself to death, honestly. At the very least, we can assume that his heart was exhausted from overactivity. He fathered four children and had 8 grandchildren and left his mark on the world in many ways. He wasn’t perfect, fighting his own demons as so many of us do, but he persevered during a time and an age when the world and society encouraged men like him to give up.

As my parents finished up the work around my yard that hot afternoon, they urged me to hop in the shower and grab a bite to eat with them. I gratefully accepted their offer but as the cold water trickled through my hot scalp and down the back of my neck, soothing my soreness, I realized something else. Many days after working on the farm all day, my great-grandfather would then cook dinner for his wife (who worked outside of the home) on top of it. Now that’s inspiring. 

References:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, October 7). How much physical activity do adults need? Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/physicalactivity/basics/adults/index.htm. 

O’Keefe JH, O’Keefe EL, Lavie CJ. The Goldilocks Zone for Exercise: Not Too Little, Not Too Much. Mo Med. 2018 Mar-Apr;115(2):98-105. PMID: 30228692; PMCID: PMC6139866.

Gottschall JS, Davis JJ, Hastings B, Porter HJ. Exercise Time and Intensity: How Much Is Too Much? Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2020 Feb 28;15(6):808-815. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2019-0208. PMID: 32365286.

Stewart CP, Jain AS. Cause of death of lower limb amputees. Prosthet Orthot Int. 1992 Aug;16(2):129-32. doi: 10.3109/03093649209164325. PMID: 1408672.

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