About 250,000 adults and children live in Amish communities in North America, in 28 U.S. states and the Canadian province of Ontario. Settling in Pennsylvania in the early 1700s, the Amish were originally a breakaway group led by extreme Anabaptist Jacob Amman. As part of his "holy experiment," his followers live a devout, simple and family-oriented life completely separate from the rest of the world. The Amish have proved to be a resilient social group, but as in every society, there are pros and cons to the Amish lifestyle.
Health and Fitness
Amish people still do not use modern technology on their farms and businesses and are consequently very physically fit compared to their "English," non-Amish neighbours. A 2004 study found that on average Amish men and women take 18,425 and 14,196 steps, respectively, every day. This far exceeds the national guidelines of 10,000 steps and helps explain their zero obesity rate. Additionally, the Amish don't drink alcohol or smoke, so apart from their high-fat diet, their lifestyle is healthy one. A major health problem overshadowing them, however, is the high rate of genetic disorders caused by such a limited gene pool. Between 1988 and 2002, there were 39 heritable disorders recorded by a study done in the "American Journal of Medical Genetics."
Strong family bonds are cited as a major advantage of Amish life. Families are typically large, often with as many as 10 children, and because there is no television, magazines, computers or radio, adults remain their children's major influence. Kids get plenty of quality time with their parents and meals are a family affair. Gender roles are well-defined -- men do the heavy physical labour while women do housework. The home is the central part of Amish life and women are highly respected as managers in that pivotal role. Conversely, inequality sits alongside that respect in certain situations: women must defer to their husbands in public and act in a subservient way, and they are prohibited from standing for certain community leadership positions.
Modern versus Traditional Lifestyles
The advantages of traditional Amish lifestyles are evident in the strong sense of family identity, tight communities and clear, shared values. It is a socially successful system, with 80 per cent of young people choosing to stay. The traditional reliance on farming, however, has had to give way to many people working in towns and cities, and an unchanging value system is proving a disadvantage in the outside world. Although the Amish find themselves increasingly in conflict with the government over various issues such as child labour and education, the continued population growth is testament to the strength of the communities.
Amish people believe vocational training is more valuable than a formal U.S. education and have legal dispensation to take their children out of school at the age of 14. This enables them to focus on family and community, learning all they need to about life from their parents, peers and elders. Most children attend small Amish schools in which they're prepared for Amish life, an enormous help to preserving the culture for future generations. The disadvantage for Amish kids in this education system is that there is no room for the individual because, as with everything Amish, a sense of community dominates all.