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Get Fit by Gardening

Trying your hand at gardening may be a best-kept secret to getting and staying in shape.
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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Gardening can be a great workout and boost for body and soul -- if you do it right.

Sharon Lovejoy, author of Country Living Gardener: A Blessing of Toads, tells WebMD she started gardening as an infant. Her grandmother, not her mother, was the gardener in the family. "I think it often skips a generation," she says.

The key, Lovejoy says, is to see gardening not as a punishment but a joy. "You should feel lucky to be outside in the garden," she says.

And maybe healthier, too. And not just from eating veggies you grew yourself.

Aerobic Gardening

Gardening provides all three types of exercise: endurance, flexibility, and strength.

Jeff Restuccio, author of Fitness the Dynamic Gardening Way, is a first-degree black belt but found he was getting more exercise playing in the garden with his kids. "I like gardening because it's purposeful," he tells WebMD. "With food so cheap in the stores, you may not save money growing your own, but the chances are, if you grew it, your family will eat it."

He suggests making your gardening into a structured exercise routine, alternating light activities with heavier ones, then a light one, and so on. Rake for a while, then dig holes, then prune. "Exercise 30 to 60 minutes, then quit, whether everything is planted or not," he advises.

"Stretch first!" Lovejoy begs. "You'd stretch before going to the gym, wouldn't you?"

Restuccio also recommends concentrating on deep breathing while you work -- and increasing your range of motion, exaggerating the raking motion or the digging motion. "You can use up 500 calories an hour that way," he says (official counts put gardening activities at the 100- to 200-per-hour calorie-burning level).

He also recommends raking right-handed 15 times, then left-handed 15 times.

"If you think double digging (going down a foot, turning the soil over, then down another foot, bringing that soil to the top) isn't exercise," he says, "you haven't tried it."

Gardening is something parents and kids can do together. "Never make cutting the grass or helping a punishment," she urges.

"When I go into the schools, I see so many more obese kids than I did 20 years ago," Lovejoy says. "I think parents are afraid to let them out."

You never know where those seeds, if you will pardon the expression, will fall or when they will sprout. "Many of us probably had to weed the garden," Sandra Mason, an extension educator in horticulture and environment at the University of Illinois, tells WebMD. "A lot [of people] come back to gardening later -- maybe when [they] purchase a home."

Gardening as Therapy

The American Horticulture Therapy Association concentrates on the cleansing, calming benefits of being in the natural world.

  • Lovejoy says studies have shown a link between ADHD and insufficient outdoors time.
  • "Hospital patients also do better when looking at a plant rather than a cinderblock wall," she says. "Maybe that is how bringing flowers to the hospital got started."
  • Older people, even those with memory problems, thrive in a community gardening situation, according to the AHTA.
  • Special gardens have also sprung up for the blind, the wheelchair-bound (raised beds), and people with mental disabilities.(2)

    Just walking into a fragrant, warm greenhouse can change someone's whole mood, Lovejoy points out.

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