08/06/2010 08:14 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Absurdity of Modern Exercise

Have you ever wondered why many of us hire people to exercise for us as gardeners, house cleaners, fence builders, window washers and carpenters while we pay other folks big bucks for the privilege of pounding up and down on their indoor machines to give our unused muscles a workout?

I knew something was upside down with this system when I started envying our garden landscaper's meaningful work outdoors as I hopped in my car and headed to the indoor gym to expend energy on ... what?

Maybe if we modified those indoor exercise machines so our endless pumping and spinning would light a light bulb or run a washing machine I wouldn't feel my efforts were so wasted. I guess it's my Canadian/New England roots, but I really hate expending energy with no productive result other than narcissistic self-congratulation over the size of my calf muscles.

"Obtain a Yield" is one of the 12 principles of permaculture, an Australian ecological design system that is gaining fans around the globe. Using permaculture thinking, I asked myself if the way I was getting my exercise made any sense, economically or environmentally.

Yes, one of the yields I got at my expensive gym was better cardio conditioning and firmer muscles -- but couldn't I have gotten a lot of that in my own home, backyard and neighborhood for free? And wasn't I spending wasted time, money and gas driving to and from the gym? I also started to wonder about the huge energy and materials costs of those big, steel machines -- and the financial and environmental price of shipping them from the factory to my neighborhood gym. And how green is my gym, anyway?

I began to think about doing more physically demanding and productive things at home. I could save the gym fees and gas money, spew fewer greenhouse gases, and pocket the cash I was shelling out to pay other people to use their muscles on my behalf. Plus I'd reap the immediate satisfaction of seeing an instant yield from my muscle work: a cleaner floor, sparkly windows, a raised bed for veggies, fewer cobwebs, a turned compost pile or a productive fruit tree that would yield delicious apples for years to come.

And I had to admit to myself that I actually LIKE doing physical work if it has a real purpose. I get kind of a kick out of digging holes, sweeping like a madwoman, mopping like a maniac. Call me weird, but I actually enjoy lifting up heavy stones, hauling them in a wheelbarrow and placing them artistically along my garden paths -- and admiring the results.

Another plus to working out at home in a natural way is that I can enjoy being outside, getting my vitamin N (nature) while listening to the birds and breathing fresh air rather than the recycled perspiration of my fellow sweaters at the gym.

I'm convinced. There's a special satisfaction to honestly productive muscle work that's you just can't get bicycling to nowhere in a gym or endlessly stepping up stair machines that never reach heaven.