14 Aug 2022

Lockdown fitness: Manual labour is key for good mental health

With Newbridge physio Barry Kehoe

Lockdown fitness: Manual labour is key for good mental health

Hard at work in the Kehoe family veggie patch

In this nauseating ‘new normal’ there’s nothing typical about spending so much time with our families. So much of my lockdown has been spent trying to come up with ideas that would allow me to spend time away from mine!

Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoy their company — but not all day, every day. We all need a break. The reality of parenting and being a husband is that sometimes it’s a complete pain in the arse. Inspired by watching Grow Cook Eat, my first attempted break for freedom was to start a small vegetable garden. But this didn’t work because when my kids saw muck and dirt they were like monkeys on speed charging around the garden.

The next escape was an offer to help lay cobblelock with a good friend nearby. This was moderately more successful, because when a block falls on a five-year-old’s toe, they don’t want to do it again so they disappear.

But the paving sand — they love the sand so they potter back over until I throw another block at them... of course, I’m messing.

And then I went painting. Well, preparing a building to be painted would be a fairer description, and at last I was free. No children, no wife; just me, a power washer and a wall. I loved that power washer.

In the past three months, many of us have returned to making, creating and fixing to pass time. These activities were once the foundation of our lives and our economy.

As consumers, most of us no longer make things, we buy them. We don’t fix things, but replace them instead. It has become so hard to be self-reliant, and this learned helplessness has left us bereft of individual agency, the experience of seeing a direct effect of our actions in the world, and knowing these actions are genuinely our own.

Progress has removed so many of us from taking care of our own things – cars, plumbing, home improvements. People now almost take pride in this ignorance, which was spawned from the modern culture of passivity and dependence.

Manual competence, or the ability to make, produce, create and fix, has a wider significance. It gives a sense of autonomy, independence and a feeling of responsibility for tangible, assessable work. We get to see an end result.


Work is a central part of most people’s lives, so it’s not surprising that it is critical to the way we feel about ourselves and to our sense of well-being. Work generates a feeling of being worthwhile, and a sense of meaning or purpose in life. But for too many of us, working in the offices and in the iCloud of our modern economy means the product of our day now feels illusive and untouchable.

Office work rarely produces any tangible output. What has been accomplished at 5pm, at the end of the day? Physical jobs that yield palpable produce have become exotically unfamiliar, but this type of work often leads to greater job satisfaction—irrespective of how well it is paid, according to a 2017 study.

There are physical and mental benefits from creating and expressing ourselves in a material way. In our always–on, always–connected world, we work with our fingertips and our smart phones and tablets are the modern peacemaker, used to comfort, entertain and relax.

Hard physical work is becoming increasingly rare, so subconsciously many of us are now finding ways of doing it for free. Running and the act of creating or making are intimately linked, and it’s bloody hard work. Running rewards us with perspiration, and practice can reap more rewards than innate ability. The longer the distance of a running event, the greater the capacity to influence and improve results through training, it was found in a 2008 study.

The outdoors has become a place of extreme work and suffering — with marathon runners, triathletes, iron men and tough mudders putting their bodies on the line with no expectation of getting paid.

The only reward is a medal for participation and the priceless feeling of knowing you have done it. It brings us down from the iCloud.

For too many of us, work defines us. It decides when we get up, when we get home and how much time we spend with our kids, often without being very rewarding in the middle.

In the last three months I’ve watched the vegetables that we planted grow. We shared the first strawberry after dividing it in four. We’ll be lucky to get another, but the carrots and potatoes are looking well.

When I park my car on my friend’s cobblelock I’ll take a bit of pride in my small contribution and when I go for a run passing the building I helped paint I’ll remember how the power washer preserved my sanity during lockdown!

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