For a former college athlete, Ephraim Smiley doesn’t really care for exercise. The 6-foot-3 defensive end loved playing football for Butler University in the 1970s, enough so that he tried out for the Canadian Football League. But he didn’t much care for all the work that went with it.
“Those guys would come off the field after practice and go in the weight room,” says Smiley, laughing and shaking his head. It makes the 66-year-old retired school counselor tired just thinking about it. He doesn’t even like going for a walk, though he knows he needs exercise to help control his type 2 diabetes.
“That would be boring to somebody like me,” he explains.
Smiley prefers to get his exercise while gardening, which he credits for lowering both his blood sugar and his weight during the warmer months of the year.
Though it’s still early in the season, he recently finished hauling 8,000 pounds of cricket manure onto a 17-acre organic garden he helps run for a hunger-relief operation in Fort Wayne, Ind. Carrying a shovel loaded with the pungent material to spread on beds he hopes to plant with green beans was hard work. But because he finds it both rewarding and absorbing, “you’re not even focusing on the fact that you’re getting exercise.”
He prefers to call it “agricize,” which he says stands for “agriculturally motivated exercise” such as composting, digging holes and pushing a wheelbarrow. All he knows is, it puts a smile on his face and keeps him out of trouble with his doctor.
Smiley admits he’s not the most careful diabetes patient. For most of the 10 years or so since his diagnosis, he couldn’t even have told you if what he had was type 1 or type 2 diabetes. But he began paying more attention to his diet three years ago and lost “40 or maybe even 50 pounds” by cutting out evening snacking, removing the bun from his Big Macs and eating more salads.
In past years, the man who calls himself the Jolly Green Giant says he’d “eat like a bear” during the winter months, inevitably replenishing the 15-20 pounds he’d peel off every summer. But he’s been more careful since an artery blockage in January 2016. He had minimal weight gain this past winter, and unseasonably mild weather has already given him an early start on his “agricize” program.
Smiley likes to think gardening helps keep him mentally sharp as well as physically fit, and studies back him up on this.
“You’re always learning, always observing things,” he says.
For example, though he’s been raising pesticide-free vegetables for 40 years, Smiley says he only recently learned the secret to keeping insects off collard greens: Plain old water. “I wash the plants down, and that keeps the insects down.”
When he thinks of all the benefits he gets from gardening, it works out to a “win-win-win situation,” Smiley says. “It’s probably the reason I’m still alive.”