I love to garden on Sundays, a day that my wife prefers to hike, bike, or take long walks. Often I do both. I garden in the morning, spend the afternoon with her, and return to my garden chores later in the day.
On many Sunday nights, I slump on the couch exhausted, wondering how to drag myself to bed. "I'm so tired," I groan, feeling the weary muscles in my back, arms, shoulders, and legs. "No wonder you've been exercising all day," my wife replies.
I think back on my day. Exercising all day? No, I wasn't exercising. I was gardening for a good part of it.
While chores such as hauling topsoil, weeding, mowing, and raking exhaust my legs, arms, and shoulders, to think of it as exercise seems laughable. After all, I enjoy gardening, and it's free. Isn't fitness supposed to cost money? Don't I need to go to a gym? Well, what my body, but not my brain, knew all along was that 45 minutes of gardening burns as many calories as 30 minutes of aerobics.
Gardening is the world's best-kept exercise secret, as I found out (albeit the hard way). But that's changing. Recent medical studies have documented what backyard enthusiasts have known for years: gardening is good for us.
It's taken me almost half my life to discover a fabulous gym outside my door. Turning compost is essentially lifting weights. Raking is like using a rowing machine. Pushing the mower is similar to walking on a treadmill. Our exercise machines are post-hole diggers, shovels, rakes, push mowers, and wheelbarrows. Our running track is the yard and garden.
If you garden on a regular basis, you're probably getting a healthy dose of exercise. By following the simple guidelines outlined here, you'll ensure that you're getting the maximum health benefits. As with any exercise program, beginning gardeners should start slowly and build up endurance. If you haven't been exercising at all, see a doctor before starting. Also, veterans and beginners alike benefit from simple stretching routines before gardening.
The health benefits of gardening are impressive. Gardening uses all the major muscle groups, the muscles that do most of the calorie burning in the human body. Legs, buttocks, shoulders, stomach, arms, neck, and back all get a workout. Gardening also increases flexibility and strengthens joints. Most gardeners have experienced the burning sensation of overworked legs and arms, but what we haven't known until recently is how much, how often, and at what intensity we should garden to get health benefits.
Recent research indicates that 30 minutes daily of moderate exercise such as gardening lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels, helps prevent diabetes and heart disease, and prevents or slows osteoporosis. You may even live longer. That's all good news for gardeners.
On the other hand, strenuous exercise for relatively inactive people may pose risks. A recent study of 21,000 male Harvard University alumni showed that risk of heart attack among sedentary people was more than 100 times greater during strenuous activity than during light or no exercise. The risk during strenuous activity was only 2.4 times greater for people who exercised at least five times a week. In the Harvard study, gardening was one of the top exercise activities reported by the moderately active men in the study.
The greatest reduction in risk of coronary heart disease occurs between those who do almost no exercise and those who exercise moderately each day. It is important to note that most heart attacks (96 percent) don't occur during strenuous activity, but the 4 percent of people who do have a heart attack during strenuous activity are sedentary or have heart disease. The bottom line is that moderate exercise is better than doing nothing, and for most people probably better than strenuous exercise.
How much is enough? Researchers now say you can break up the exercise sessions into short bursts (at least 8 minutes) of moderate activity throughout the day. Although each short activity has minimal health benefits, as long as those exercise sessions total 30 minutes, you'll profit. For example, if you weed for 10 minutes in the morning, push a mower for 10 minutes in the afternoon, and chop wood for 10 minutes in the evening you get similar health benefit as you would doing 30 consecutive minutes of comparable activities.
"These activities need to be of at least moderate intensity," says Dr. William Haskell, professor of medicine at the Stanford University Center for Research in Disease Prevention. "A person has to do more than putter around a flower bed." Haskell defines a moderate activity as the equivalent of a brisk walk (3-4 mph).
Although gardening is great for improving your overall health, Haskell advises combining moderate activity such as gardening with a program of regular aerobic exercise such as climbing stairs, cycling, jogging, or swimming. That's because aerobic exercise utilizes large muscle groups (usually the legs) over an extended period of time, and as its name implies, makes you breathe harder. Aerobic exercise offers additional health benefits improved lung functioning and increased heart strength and efficiency that you won't get from moderate exercise like gardening.
If you're looking to lose a few inches around your waistline, or simply to maintain your weight, gardening is a wise choice. It's fun, relaxing, and enriching and happens to be healthful when done regularly. And study after study shows that if you enjoy the exercise activity, you'll probably stick with it.
Your daily weight loss depends on how many calories you consume and burn. It's a simple formula: If you burn more than you eat, you'll lose weight. Again moderation is key. Make sure that you're eating sensibly and reduce the amount of fats in your diet, then gradually increase your activity in the garden. Always check with your doctor before starting any weight-loss program.
Many gardening chores burn fat. Of course, the number of calories you burn depends on the type and intensity of activity and your weight. For example, a 200-pound man will burn more calories than a 170-pound man, even though they're both doing the same activity.
To lose 1 pound of fat, you must burn 3,500 more calories than you consume in any given period of time. A relatively inactive person with stable weight would, without any changes in diet, need to burn an extra 500 calories (3,500 divided by 7 = 500) a day in order to lose a pound in a week. The key, of course, is to eat less and do more. Gradually increase your activities while reducing your calorie intake. Studies indicate that a daily diet of 1,500 to 2,000 calories is best, and that losing a pound a week is sensible and more likely to be permanent than more drastic weight-loss regimes would be.
In order to maximize the exercise benefits from gardening, focus on the major muscle groups, advises Jeff Restuccio, author of Fitness the Dynamic Gardening Way (Balance of Nature Publishing, Cordova, TN, 1992; $12.95). Restuccio recommends simple techniques such as bending your knees while raking or placing a crate that requires you to step up and down as you move from one flower bed to the next.
"If you have ever raked, hoed, or weeded a garden bed, you already know that gardening is a good workout," Restuccio says. "But if you think about it in terms of human physiology, no one has ever shown us how to garden."
Turn garden work into garden exercise, he advises. The Tennessee-based author and martial arts expert recommends exaggerating movements to achieve maximum range of motion and changing gardening stances in order to use different muscles. For example, when raking put your left foot forward, and use your left hand on the lower handle. Then switch the right foot forward, and switch your hand positions as well.
Remember, sore muscles aren't proof that you've exercised. More often, stiffness and pain indicate inadequate or improper stretching and warm-up, or overuse of muscles. After gardening you should feel tired, not achy. Take time to stretch, and avoid marathon sessions turning compost, raking leaves, or shoveling snow. Above all, don't forget why you garden. Simply be aware of the duration and intensity of your gardening so that you accrue the maximum health benefits.
Use a push mower instead of a rider. This a great way to get exercise once or twice a week. If your lawn is too big to cut without a rider, set aside a portion of your lawn for a push mower.
Plan a daily gardening activity. Of course, people living in colder climates need to be creative. If you use a snow thrower, shovel a portion of your driveway. When buying seeds or other easily carried items at a garden center, park your car a mile away and walk.
Vary your activities. Don't let one activity consume you, or you'll pay for it later. Break up strenuous gardening chores with more moderate and enjoyable activities. For example, break up a session of post-hole digging with some quiet weeding or transplanting.
Count the minutes. Make sure the total daily time of garden activities adds up to 30 minutes. Each activity should last at least 8 minutes. If you've been inactive, build up to the 30-minute total gradually.
Dig holes. Digging and shoveling are big calorie burners (250 to 350 calories per half-hour). Each depends on the muscles of the legs and stomach, arms and shoulders, and neck and back.
Make a compost pile. If you've been thinking about starting a compost pile, now there's another good reason to do it. Turning compost burns 250 to 300 calories per half-hour.
Listen to your muscles. Pay attention to the muscles that are working for you, as well as to your exertion levels. If you can increase your range of motion or safely add weight or resistance to a garden activity, give it a try. But whatever you do, don't use your back.
The following chart gives the calories burned during 30 minutes of the activity for a 180-pound person. Generally, a person who weighs more will burn more calories than the amount shown here. Likewise, a person weighing less burns fewer calories.
Typical calories burned in 30 minutes of:
Sitting quietly 40
Watering lawn or garden 61
Mowing lawn (riding) 101
Trimming shrubs (power) 142
Bagging leaves 162
Planting seedlings 162
Mowing (push with motor) 182
Planting trees 182
Snow thrower (walking) 182
Trimming shrubs (manual) 182
Clearing land 202
Digging, spading, tilling 202
Laying sod 202
General gardening 202
Chopping wood 243
Gardening with heavy powertools 243
Mowing lawn (push mower) 243
Shoveling snow 243
Double digging 344
Shoveling heavy snow 364
Dan Hickey is a former editor for National Gardening.
Photography by National Gardening Association
Article published on June 23, 2008.