Garden for Health: Get Your Daily Exercise in the Vegetable Patch

Garden for health by using a productive 30-minute routine to keep you and your vegetable patch fit.

1 / 7
Raking leaves involves several muscle groups.
2 / 7
Flowers can bring joy and a reason to get outside.
3 / 7
Mowing the grass with a push mower, even when it has a motor, can burn more calories. For an even better workout, use an ecofriendly motorless push mower.
4 / 7
Cutting lettuce for your salad can make for a great prelunch workout.
5 / 7
Trimming your shrubs burns as many calories as doing water aerobics.
6 / 7
Making your yard beautiful also has mental health benefits.
7 / 7
You expend the same amount of energy planting flowers as you do on a leisurely bike ride.

Americans spend billions of dollars each year on gym memberships – most of which are underused. The same people also spend billions of dollars on their gardens and lawns – many of which remain neglected. But did you know that you can garden for health and reduce your food costs while giving yourself a well-rounded workout that offers the health benefits of virtually any for-pay workout?

Gardening for Health

Indeed, gardening is the world’s best-kept exercise secret. It’s like going to the gym for free while beautifying your yard and producing good things to eat. Gardening gives you a great all-around workout, hitting all the major muscle groups – muscles that burn the most calories, says Jeff Restuccio, author of Fitness the Dynamic Gardening Way.

Even more, gardening increases flexibility and strengthens joints. A mere 30 minutes of daily gardening can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, prevent diabetes and heart disease, and prevent or slow osteoporosis.

Studies show that if you enjoy an exercise activity, you’re more likely to stick with the program. Without spending additional dollars or hours, you can have a lovely landscape while maintaining a healthy body. Gardening for 45 minutes burns as many calories as 30 minutes of aerobics. To help you shape up, lose weight and rake with more enthusiasm, here are examples of how different gardening chores compare to typical fitness activities.

How Do the Calories Work?

A half-hour of digging and shoveling burns 198 calories, equivalent to riding a stationary bicycle for the same amount of time. That knocks out a slice of pepperoni pizza.

You’ll need to spend 30 minutes lifting weights to equal the 85 calories burned in only 15 minutes of trimming shrubs. That squishes away four marshmallows.

You can burn off the 120 calories in a serving of trail mix by raking leaves for a half-hour or doing Tai Chi for five minutes longer.

Despite these benefits, if you work carelessly or exhaust yourself in the process, gardening activities can take a toll on your body. As an avid gardener, you may start out watering the hanging baskets, planting petunias and pruning the roses. Then you go on to the heavy stuff – hauling topsoil to enrich your garden, spreading mulch on new plantings and raking away leftover debris after these tasks. What started out as just another nice day in the garden may end with your body screaming for mercy.

Tips and Tricks

Here are tips to help you reap the benefits and eliminate the risks of injury.

Lay the groundwork before you begin. “Gardening requires strength, stamina and flexibility, none of which come from leafing through seed catalogs,” says Barbara Pearlman in her book, Gardener’s Fitness: Weeding Out the Aches and Pains. But warming up can help prevent injury. “Protect your body by doing simple stretching exercises,” says Sheri McGaugh, an occupational therapist in Austin, Texas. “Prepare your muscles before putting them to work.”

As with any exercise program, start slowly and gradually increase the intensity of your activities. Maintain flexibility by regularly stretching lower back muscles and hamstrings, flexing hips and knees with lunges, and strengthening abdominal muscles with crunches. If you have recurrent back problems, landscape with low-maintenance shrubs and make good use of mulch to reduce time needed for digging and weeding.

Avoid repetitive tasks. Bending, lifting, stooping or kneeling repeatedly is a prescription for trouble. “Change neck and head position often, and don’t stay in one spot or do one motion for too long,” McGaugh says. Pruning for hours can cause tennis elbow symptoms, and knee joints may swell from constant stooping or kneeling. Change gardening stances to use different muscles. For example, if you typically put your left foot forward and left hand on the handle when raking, switch foot and hand positions occasionally.

Back to basics. If you’ve ever said, “I’ll just spread this one sack of mulch,” then ended up unloading nine more, you know how lifting heavy objects can return to haunt you.

“Instead of bending your back for lifting, bend your knees. Keep the load close to your body, pull in stomach muscles, and push with your legs,” McGaugh says. Don’t overestimate your strength – if a flowerpot or sack of fertilizer is too heavy, use a wheelbarrow or trolley, or ask someone to help.

Shoveling involves intense bending, twisting and lifting, making it perhaps the most strenuous of garden chores. Stooping or digging incorrectly will result in back pain. Alternate strenuous chores with moderate activities, and rest frequently.

Use equipment safely. Load the wheelbarrow with less weight and make several trips. Use knee pads or a folded towel when planting or weeding. Avoid over-reaching. When pulling plants with deep roots, keep your back straight and let your legs absorb the strain.

Choose properly sized tools with cushioned handles. Built-up grips make handles wider, resulting in less pressure on joints. Do this yourself by wrapping a foam pad around handles and securing with strong tape. Purchase long-handled tools to eliminate bending. Lidded storage stools on wheels and portable benches that convert to a kneeling surface are useful. A caddy or work apron keeps supplies handy.

Dress properly. Always wear gloves to protect against blisters or cuts. It’s possible to become infected with parasites from digging with bare hands, especially if you have a cut. Socks and closed-toe shoes are necessary to protect feet from crushing injuries or puncture wounds – and rubber soles provide traction on wet or uneven surfaces to prevent slips and falls.

Long pants and long-sleeved shirts offer protection from sun, ants and thorny plants. Slather on sunscreen and wear a wide-brimmed hat. Leave off the perfume; sweet scents – even from shampoos and lotions –
attract bees and wasps.

Stay hydrated. Plants may not be the only things drooping from too little water. By the time you feel thirsty, your body is already dehydrated. Drinks with caffeine – iced tea or sodas – actually increase your vulnerability to heat exhaustion, so stick with water, juices or sports drinks. “If you experience dizziness, headache, fatigue or nausea, get out of the garden and into the house to cool off and rest,” Pearlman says.

Pace yourself. Budget break times into your gardening session. Work in 15- to 30-minute increments, then rest or change activities. Take all equipment needed during one work period to avoid wasting time and energy. Curb the tendency to overdo, and gardening can be fun, relaxing and healthy.

Feel the Burn

The National Gardening Association, gives these figures for typical calories burned in 30 minutes of gardening activity by a 180-pound person:
Raking – 162
Bagging Leaves – 162
Watering Garden – 61
Planting Seedlings – 162
Mowing (push, with motor) – 182
Trimming Shrubs (manual) – 182
Weeding – 182
Digging, Spading, Tilling – 202
General Gardening – 202

Beverly Burmeier writes from central Texas where she gets plenty of exercise all year long while gardening in the mild climate.