Gardening as a complete workout—who knew?
Illustration by Linda Helton
Anyone who’s ever greeted the first day of spring by throwing themselves outdoors and vigorously gardening for hours, but without having gone into training in the waning weeks of winter (Wait: did she say, training? Like, for a marathon?), knows what it’s like to wake up the next morning, barely able to walk. Pulled hamstrings, stiff bones, excruciating soreness are some of the payoffs for not being thoroughly conditioned, enough to cause some people to throw in the trowel, the borders be damned. On the other hand, gearing up for gardening, and seeing it as an opportunity to build strength and stamina, can be rewarded not just with a spectacular landscape, but also with sinewy muscles, plentiful energy, and—attention weight obsessives (that’s me)—a pulchritudinous chassis.
Gardening as a complete workout—who knew? Students of physiology, that’s who. Studies show that strenuous gardening, which uses all the muscle groups, can challenge the body as much as any competitive sport. But there’s more to gardening than just a toned physique; there’s scads of evidence showing that the exertion involved in gardening also plays a significant role in warding off, or improving, certain chronic conditions. Some examples:
A Danish study found that gardening can decrease the risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. In addition, an article in QJM: An International Journal of Medicine reported that incidents of heart disease peak in winter and drop in summer. In winter, sporadic bursts of exercise in frigid air put a great strain on the heart, particularly when shoveling snow, potentially leading to a coronary. In summer, however, toiling in the garden on a regular basis poses fewer such hazards.
Researchers at the University of Alabama found that gardening is more effective in boosting bone density than most other activities—among them, jogging—and is as effective as weight training. Moreover, gardening, which involves exposure to sunlight, improves the absorption of Vitamin D, a key to building bone.
A University of Alabama study reported that men and women with Type-2 diabetes who garden several times a week can decrease, even eliminate, their need for medication.
People who never, or rarely, exercise are 45 percent more likely to develop any type of dementia than those who exercise routinely. Research shows that sustained gardening helps to prevent or delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, and to reduce the effects of dementia, such as a tendency to violent incidents.
An estimated 65 percent of Americans are either obese or overweight, a contributing factor in all of the above ailments; rigorous gardening can lower the likelihood of these diseases by burning calories. To get a better understanding of the effectiveness of yard work in fighting obesity, here’s the number of calories a 180-pound person can expend while cultivating the landscape for 30 minutes (fewer calories, if you weigh less), depending on activity. Some examples:
Hand-trimming shrubs—182 calories
Mowing lawn—243 calories
Double digging—344 calories
Okay, so day-to-day gardening is good for you. But what happens when there’s snow on the ground, rendering you housebound, your muscles turning to guacamole? This, boys and girls, is where we came in. Several weeks before the growing season begins, you can whip yourself into shape with a series of exercises, says Kimberly Ridout, a personal trainer who designs fitness programs for gardeners. Caveats: Experts suggest you consult a doctor before beginning such a program and that you always warm up—say, by marching in place or walking on a treadmill. These exercises, which should be increased each week, include:
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and, holding a broom handle, slowly turn your shoulders right and then left, holding each position 2-5 seconds.
Stand facing a wall an arm’s length away, without locking knees; place hands on wall slightly wider than shoulder width. With head in neutral position, inhale as you bend toward the wall, exhale as you return to starting position.
With feet shoulder-width apart, bend your knees and lift a medium-to-large clay pot (empty) to shoulder height, using your legs—never your back.
Once the weather finally turns fair and you begin spring cleanup, start small, and don’t overdo. When bending, focus on tightening your leg muscles and keeping a straight back, your head up. When raking, keep the rake close to your body with knees slightly bent. When moving a wheelbarrow, load the wheelbarrow with only enough weight to push the wheelbarrow forward without straining. Most important: restrict yourself to 20 to 30 minutes of gardening, varying your activities and doing them for eight minutes each, standing up to stretch every ten minutes. Then, as the weeks go by, you can spend more and more time doing such chores, and in short order, you’ll be fit as a fiddle, able to garden, pain-free, for hours.
Oh, and did I mention: You’ll also have a body to die for. And if that right there isn’t incentive enough for you to get in shape, I ask you, what is?