Get Fit in the Garden

Take advantage of the gym growing outside your front door!

From the WebMD Archives

Bruce Van Horn says most of us don't do enough for ourselves. To practice what he preaches, the New York yoga instructor spends a good part of every day in his garden. The benefits? "It not only saves me money, but it gets me moving," says Van Horn.

Weeding, planting, pruning, watering the lawn -- there's always something to do in the garden that will help bring physical activity into your day, says Van Horn.

Gardening brings you both mental and physical fitness, says Charlie Nardozzi, horticulturist at the National Gardening Association in South Burlington, Vt. From the mental standpoint, says Nardozzi, gardening provides a way of unwinding. "When you're engrossed in what's going on in your garden, you're not so wrapped up in what happened during the rest of the day. Gardening offers you a way of creating a sanctuary, a place of ease."

From a physical standpoint, gardening helps you build strength, dexterity, and flexibility. "Not to mention the advantages you get from being outside in the sunshine," he says.

Focusing on the major muscle groups maximizes the exercise benefits from gardening, says Jeff Restuccio, author of Fitness the Dynamic Gardening Way. Bend your knees while raking, for example, or place a crate that requires you to step up and down as you move from one flowerbed to the next.

Restuccio, who is also a martial arts expert, recommends exaggerating your movements so that you achieve the maximum range of motion and changing your stances in order to use different muscles. When raking, for example, put your left foot forward, and use your left hand lower on the handle. Then switch, putting your right foot forward, changing your hand positions as well.

Feel the Burn (of Calories)

Gardening is also a good way to whittle down your waistline, says Nardozzi. Thirty minutes of gardening exercise (for a 180-pound person) can burn off the following number of calories (the more you weigh, the more calories you'll burn; the less you weigh, the fewer calories you'll burn):

Watering lawn or garden, 61 calories
Mowing lawn (riding), 101
Trimming shrubs (power), 142
Raking, 162
Bagging leaves, 162
Planting seedlings, 162
Mowing (push with motor), 182
Planting trees, 182
Trimming shrubs (manual), 182
Weeding, 182
Clearing land, 202
Digging, spading, tilling, 202
Laying sod, 202
General gardening, 202
Mowing lawn (push mower), 243

Women who want to protect themselves from osteoporosis would also be well advised to get into the garden. According to a study conducted by the National Women's Health Resource Center, yard work is an activity that benefits bone density because it involves weight-bearing motions, such as pushing a mower, digging holes, pulling weeds, and carrying soil or other gardening items.


Gardening Health Tips

The National Gardening Association offers these tips for getting the most health benefits from gardening:

  • Plan a daily gardening activity. There's always something you can do related to gardening, even if it's just walking to your local garden center and carrying home a bag of seeds.
  • Vary your activities. Break up strenuous gardening chores with more moderate activities. Switch from digging holes, for example, to some less difficult weeding.
  • Count the minutes. Make sure the total amount of gardening exercise time adds up to 30 minutes. Each activity should last at least 8 minutes. If you've been a couch potato all winter, don't jump right in. Build up the 30 minutes gradually.

Jeff Restuccio has his own "aerobic gardening" program:

  • Warm up your muscles for 5-10 minutes before you garden.

  • Stretch (especially the legs, hips, shoulders, and neck) for 5-10 minutes. Stretching will help relieve back strain and muscle soreness and avoid injury.

  • Garden using a variety of motions at a steady pace. Plan out your gardening exercise session to include a variety of movements such as raking, mowing, weeding, pruning, and digging, and alternate between them often, every 15 minutes, for example. Here are six different motions or techniques to rake, hoe, and weed:

    • Bend one leg, knee down to the ground, keeping the other foot flat. Use a hand tool.
    • Bend both legs and kneel on a soft pad. Use a hand tool.
    • Squat with both feet flat on the ground. (Don't do this if you have bad knees.)
    • Lunge and weed (Restuccio's personal favorite). Using a hand weeder, lunge with one leg bent at the knee in front of you and one leg bent straight back.
    • Sit and weed. If your knees, feet, or legs won't permit much bending, then sit and garden. Exercise your arms and waist. Use long-handled tools.
    • Stand with knees bent and your back straight and rake in a broad, sweeping motion using your legs. While raking or hoeing, use long-handled tools so you won't have to bend over to use them.

  • Stretch again after you have thoroughly warmed up your muscles with 15-20 minutes of steady raking, hoeing, weeding, planting, or mowing.

  • Cool down after your gardening exercise session by walking or picking flowers or vegetables.

As beneficial as gardening is, you still need to take some precautions. For starters, "always, always, always bend from your knees and not your back," says Restuccio.


Stay Protected

If you're gardening in the bright sunlight, wear a hat, cover your neck, and liberally apply sunscreen, says Nardozzi. Wear light colors that won't absorb the heat and wear sturdy shoes to protect your feet. If you live in an area with a lot of mosquitoes, try to plan your gardening activities during the early morning, or use insect repellent. Keep your eyes open for wasps' and hornets' nests. And make sure you stay well hydrated by keeping a bottle of water nearby -- your plants aren't the only things that should be watered!

The advantages of gardening as exercise, says Restuccio, are that you don't have to be perfectly fit or a perfect gardener. "You just have to get out there, and something will happen. You'll get healthier, and you may even grow something!"

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on April 14, 2005


SOURCES: Bruce Van Horn, yoga instructor, Chestnut Ridge, N.Y. Charlie Nardozzi, horticulturist, National Gardening Association, South Burlington, Vt. Jeff Restuccio, author, Fitness the Dynamic Gardening Way. National Women's Health Resource Center web site.

© 2004 WebMD, Inc. All rights Reserved.


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