The gardener’s workout

When it was first suggested that I write an article about exercise, physical fitness and the health benefits of gardening, I didn’t find the idea at all appealing. Setting goals, committing to a routine, and getting your doctor’s approval before embarking on a fitness regimen is all very good and important advice, of course; but for me, gardening is something that comes from the heart.

It’s not about reps, timed sequences and maintaining a certain level of cardiac intensity; it’s about getting your hands dirty and ruining your nails and clothes. It’s about seeing results that are green, colorful and fragrant, and about sowing seeds and watching life unfold. But as I was hauling mulch to my blueberries the other day, I found myself sweating, breathing hard and feeling my muscles warm up, and I realized that you don’t need to be in a room full of mirrors and sleek, spandex-sheathed bodies to get a workout.

After a bit of digging on the Internet, I came up with some fruitful information that supports what every gardener knows — that gardening burns significant amounts of energy and is good for you. Apparently, it can even help prevent heart attacks, strokes, colon cancer and type 2 diabetes. According to U.S. News & World Report, studies indicate that gardening is more effective than jogging or aerobics in helping women over 50 maintain healthy bone mass, and it may lower blood pressure and cholesterol in older men. The British United Provident Association, a leading health-insurance provider, has actually assigned numbers to specific gardening activities indicating how many calories they burn: vigorous digging (250 kilocalories per half-hour), walk-behind mowing (195 kcal), weeding (105 kcal) and raking (100 kcal). The University of Illinois Extension Service, meanwhile, notes that gardening can promote an increased range of motion, help develop hand/eye coordination, and improve motor skills and self-esteem. In a similar vein, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends moderate physical activity such as hoeing, weeding, raking leaves, hauling brush and pushing a mower. And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers heavy or rapid shoveling, climbing and trimming trees, and pushing a nonmotorized mower to be “vigorous exercise.”

Facts and figures aside, though, I have to admit that during the course of a few hours — while I methodically shoveled mulch into the wheelbarrow, wheeled it down the driveway and unloaded it — I found myself not only wondering where my husband had gotten to but realizing that if I picked up the pace, I could maintain a regular rhythm and really begin to feel the strength of my muscles and enjoy the work — more like a power-yoga session than a Richard Simmons workout.

Later, lying on the sofa feeling the soreness in my legs and lower back, I realized that just like a workout in the gym, working in the garden demands a certain amount of attention to method — something the fact sheet failed to mention. So I consulted local physical therapist Linda Emerick, who stresses the importance of not overdoing it. Here’s what she recommends:

* Pace and variation: To prevent fatigue, pace yourself and change activities every 15-20 minutes, alternating “down” (i.e. kneeling/bending/squatting) and “up” (standing/reaching up) activities.

* Stretch before, during and after: Warm up the way you would before running; take stretch breaks every 15 to 20 minutes, and stretch afterward while you’re cooling down.

* Alternate sides: This is important when raking, shoveling and doing any side-to-side activity. Give your nondominant side a chance to work out.

* Don’t twist: Be sure to turn the entire body when shoveling or reaching, rather than twisting at the waist and risking lower-back injury.

* Handle smaller quantities: Try to buy 20-pound (rather than 50-pound) bags of garden materials.

* Think out the lift: Lift heavy items in two steps — first from the ground to a midlevel place (such as a box or small stool) and then from there to the standing position.

After shoveling, hauling and spreading mulch that day, I felt as if I’d been on the StairMaster, stationary bike and NordicTrack all at once. I was wiped! Unquestionably, this was an eye opener. But did I overdo it? Not really.

If I did these things more often, I believe I could comfortably sustain that level of activity. And frequency aside, I think I learned something: Cultivating a more mindful approach to gardening enhances my awareness of both my physical strength and my physical limitations. I love being outside, love the physicality of bending and hauling. And it’s no stretch to believe that being physically active outdoors and feeling connected with nature does indeed have its health benefits.

Of course, apartment dwellers and urban homeowners with small lots may need to be creative in seeking out gardening opportunities: volunteering at the local public garden, maybe, or helping out at the neighborhood community garden. But whatever way you choose to do it, gardening beats sprawling on the couch and watching television — save that for after you’ve tended to your garden!

Go to www.gardenfitness.com to learn more about how to blend exercise and gardening.

[Alison Arnold is director of horticulture at The North Carolina Arboretum. She can be reached at 665-2492.]

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