Forget about the gym! Chicken-shaped food will keep you fit. Bonus: fresh eggs

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

But when I turned 30, my relationship with running deteriorated. My back started resisting long runs. Then it started resisting short runs. Finally, one morning, I couldn't walk. My back said, “No, no more running.”

For months, I was deeply saddened by this major loss in my life. I tried other forms of exercise, but my back resisted it all – biking, yoga, Pilates, Zumba, you name it. Whatever our society calls “exercise,” my back ached for days afterward. “Sorry. But we’re tired of all this,” my 33 vertebrae said in unison.

A different exercise mindset

At the same time, I was reporting on global health for NPR, and I began to realize that exercise itself was a strange phenomenon. Around the world, people don't get out and move their bodies with the intention of burning calories and toning their thighs (mmmm … chicken thighs). Instead, they embrace a revolutionary idea: They walk — and walk a lot — with a clear purpose in mind beyond the movement itself. They walk to reach a destination. They walk to hunt or gather forage. They walk to tend animals or tend crops. Or build a structure. Or gather firewood.

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

In other words, Ngumbi was lifting weights not three times a week but at least twice a day. “I had to carry 25-gallon buckets of water from the river,” she says. “So yes, I was lifting weights. I was exercising 24-7.”

Gumby says it feels beneficial to associate movement with purpose. And yet, here in America we have replaced this beneficial movement with machines. “The river now exists in my house. The fire lives in my house. And I can turn them on and off when I need to,” she says, laughing. “So I no longer have that purpose. [to move] And with all these things I have to do, I started gaining weight. I just started eating more and moving less.” So Ngumbi started exercising in the gym.

But I started to wonder if I could go in the opposite direction. Could I take inspiration from people around the world and add more purpose and meaning to my workouts? “Hmm,” I thought, “maybe this kind of movement could be my version of CrossFit and barre.”

And so, after a decade of sitting at home, I began the most successful exercise program of my life. I bought 15 chicks, two coops, and a book on how to raise a backyard flock. And I started sizing up the chickens.

Honestly, chicken sizing is a lot harder than I thought. A lot harder. Caring for flightless birds strengthens your lower body and thighs. Because it requires bending, squatting, and lifting heavy things around your yard. One weekend, I tracked what chicken sizing involved, and I counted about 20-30 squats a day, 1,500 extra steps a day (depending on how many chickens I have to carry back to the coop), and lifting the poultry water dispenser up, down, and around the yard. They don't weigh 25 pounds, but at least 5 pounds.

Benefits of Chicken Shape

So I've gotten into better shape than I expected. And I've realized that chicken-sizing has some big benefits compared to regular exercise:

Failure is not an option: You can't make excuses for not exercising. You can't put on your chicken-sized clothes, sit down for 30 minutes and decide, “Oh, I'll do it tomorrow.” Women are dependent on you and they need care every morning and every night. And if you don't do it, they could die. They could be eaten by raccoons or skunks (which eat their heads, drink their blood and throw up their bodies). Or they could get dehydrated or die from the cold. The stakes are 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. It's part of your life, like going to the bathroom. You don't write it down in your calendar. You just do it. (Yes, some mornings into this new regimen you curse the fact that you bought 15 chickens, but that feeling fades after a few months).

You don't have to change clothes: what a huge time saver! But at the same time, skipping this simple step actually makes it much easier to get up and do things. As all habit experts say, “Take it easy!”

You always have a workout partner: In my case, I have 15. Yes, their brains are the size of two peanuts. But they are happy to see me – oh, so happy. Every morning and evening, they enthusiastically encourage my chicken-sized routine! Squeal. Baaaah-baaaaah!

And if I need comfort, I can pick up a chicken and stroke its soft feathers. Often it's a white bird named Marshmallow. Talk about a pleasant, in-the-moment, five-senses experience. Sure, stroking a chicken isn't the same as taking a dose of Lexapro, but twice a day, it comes pretty close. (

(A friend of mine asked me the other day if I do “self-care,” and I said, “No.” And she responded in a very funny way. “Yes, you do. You raise chickens.”}

And there's an added bonus that no gym workout will give. Eggs! Oh my god, eggs! The best eggs you've ever eaten in your life. Some days I sit at the breakfast table and just marvel at how delicious these eggs are. Or I look at our egg rack on the kitchen counter and admire the color of the beautiful shells.

Just this morning I fried an egg for myself and one for my daughter. When we cut into the golden-orange yolk, she asked, “Whose is this?”

“Oh, it's Marshmallow,” I said. “That's so wonderful. Thank you, Marshmallow.” And thank you, Chicken-Sizing.

Looking at all these wonderful aspects of chicken sizing, I wonder if Esther Ngumbi misses raising chickens or fetching water from the river.

“I do miss it,” she sighs. “But there are some things I do miss,” she replies. “For example, sometimes I had to get up early in the morning, and it was very cold.”

So maybe chicken-shaping is so great because it gives me purpose but I don't really need to do it. If I forget to close their cage one night and a skunk comes to bite their head off, my family will still eat dinner.

In other words, maybe chicken-sizing is a sweet spot between walking all day because your livelihood depends on it, and walking simply because your body is used to sitting all day.

Gumbi agrees. “Yes, there is probably a good time to exercise,” she says. “I really enjoyed going for a walk in the evening to fetch water. It was so refreshing with the cool evening breeze. It suddenly relaxes you. So I felt like I was meditating while walking”—a combination of meditation, weight lifting and fulfilling a necessary function of life.

Science journalist Michaelene Doucleff is the author of this book. Hunt, gather, parent: What ancient cultures can teach us about the lost art of raising happy, helpful little humans.

Copyright 2024 NPR

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