Published January 13, 2015
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.
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.
Getting Started and Keeping It Up
When you walk away from the garden, however, it doesn’t sit there like an elliptical trainer waiting for you to come back. It starts changing. The keys to making gardening a hobby you can maintain include:
Start small. A 4-foot by 6-foot bed can produce a lot of tomatoes or cut flowers. Or you can garden in containers, just be sure they are large enough that they don’t dry out too quickly. Containers are great for city folk and those without a back 40, also.
Be realistic. Peonies are not going to live in Phoenix. Forget it. You need to learn your growing region number (check any catalog, because these will soon be a part of your life, too). Stick with plants with a chance of survival. Constantly killing inappropriate species can rasp on your last nerve.
Don’t do one activity each time you go out there. “Switch every 30 minutes,” Mason advises. Take regular breaks. “I sometimes put a rock or something to show where I am quitting the weeding,” Mason says. You can also set a timer.
Lift heavy bags carefully. Remember the old saw: Lift with your legs. “Use your biggest, strongest muscles for the heavy stuff,” Mason notes. She also says to watch the twisting. “We tend to lift a shovel of dirt, then twist to the side to dump it. Move your feet instead.”
If you have allergies, talk to your doctor about it. Lovejoy doesn’t stop gardening, she takes a Benadryl. Mason points out that you can sort of de-allergize your yard. “Plants pollinated by bees tend to have heavier pollen that doesn’t fly around as much,” Mason says. “Wind-pollinated trees and plants tend to cause more trouble.”
Don’t throw poison everywhere. This seems so obvious, but when people see a bug, Lovejoy says, they grab a can. “Usually a squirt of water to get the bug off the plant does the trick,” she says. This goes for water gardens, too. Algaecides can cause an imbalance. Instead, cover the surface with as many lilypads as you can.
Don’t flip for fertilizer, either. “Fertilizers are like vitamins,” Mason says. “What you have naturally may be enough.” Better to feed the soil with compost, she says.
Check out all the new tools. Mason says there are new implements for people with arthritic hands or people with carpal tunnel syndrome (which she has). “Certain gloves can improve your grip,” she says.
If you are heaving off the couch to garden, take it slowly. Sedentary people who suddenly start exercising vigorously risk injury. Take a nice hot bath after gardening. You’ve earned it!
Finally, “don’t forget to enjoy your work,” Mason says. “Garden benches are meant to be sat on.”
Mason adds: “Go out in your garden every morning. Greet your garden. It will make you feel so good to start the day.”
By Star Lawrence, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
SOURCES: Sharon Lovejoy, author, Country Living Gardener: A Blessing of Toads and Trowel and Error: Over 700 Shortcuts, Tips & Remedies for the Gardener. Jeffrey Restuccio, author, Fitness the Dynamic Gardening Way. Sandra Mason, extension educator, Horticulture & Environment, University of Illinois, Champaign, Ill.