Editor’s Note: Before beginning any new exercise program, consult your doctor. Stop immediately if you experience pain.
A lot of people find it difficult to embrace the idea of regular exercise, even though they know it’s good for their physical and mental health. Yet committing to a workout routine doesn’t necessarily entail going to the gym or running around your neighborhood.
Gardening is a great example of a popular hobby that’s accessible and can also be used as a workout.
Working in your garden or yard is a source of moderate to vigorous physical activity in younger adults, while providing low to moderate physical activity in older adults, research has shown. The pastime is also a muscle-strengthening activity, according to the US Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, and one of the physical activities with the lowest injury rates.
More good news: Puttering in your garden just two hours a week could help boost your mood, while the communal gardening that’s proliferating in communities and schools provides social benefits that can alleviate stress and help combat isolation and even dementia, according to studies.
With all these benefits, gardening for fitness will be a trend this year, predicts Rishi Mandal, San Francisco-based cofounder and CEO of the fitness coaching app Future. “Our clients at Future have already been asking their coaches to add gardening and landscaping activities into their routines,” Mandal said, “because it’s easy to access, fits into their lifestyle and offers meditative benefits.”
This demand fits with the overall interest he’s seeing among clients for less intensive fitness routines that are accessible and mesh with an on-the-go lifestyle.
Why gardening is exercise
Gardening engages all the major muscle groups, such as the arms, legs, shoulders, back and abdomen, Mandal said. The activity also improves mobility, helps build endurance, and is a comparable workout to walking or Pilates.
All the necessary digging, planting, mowing, raking and weeding torches calories, too. A 154-pound person burns an average of 330 calories per hour through gardening, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Such activity is similar to what that same person would burn playing golf or dancing.
Tom Adkinson of Nashville has long been on board with the notion of gardening to stay fit. The 72-year-old has three gardens, which he uses primarily to grow tomatoes, sweet banana peppers and okra. The work varies in intensity during the growing season.
“Every year I turn the soil by hand,” Adkinson said, “and I consider that serious exercise.”
The hours Adkinson spends staking the tomatoes, then watering and weeding all three gardens, involves a lot of bending and stretching, which he likens to performing garden yoga.
Start with a warm-up
Just as with traditional exercise, Adkinson warms up beforehand, doing various stretches. That’s wise, said Christine Zellers, an assistant professor of family and community health sciences at Rutgers University.
“Even though gardening may not appear strenuous, using the body in new ways can make you stiff if you don’t work up to the movement and prepare by limbering up a little,” said Zellers, who teaches at the Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May County in New Jersey.
In addition to stretching, going for a short walk before you begin gardening can also serve as a warm-up. While working in your garden or yard, it’s important to bend at the knees to lift heavy objects, she said, and pace yourself if you’re new.
Just as a new runner would slowly build up miles before tackling a marathon, new gardeners should start with short sessions, gradually increasing the time and intensity spent in their gardens.
Build muscle strength and burn calories
Once you’ve got some experience working in your garden or yard, you can ramp things up for more of a challenge. If you’ve purchased a flat of flowers, bring them to the backyard one at a time. When it’s time to mow the lawn, increase the pace of your mowing or switch to a push mower. For some strength training, fill two large watering cans, then carry them around your yard to water the plants.
“Gardening can provide a sense of accomplishment and reward, in addition to movement, by doing something with your hands that is fulfilling, like feeding your family or making your yard look wonderful,” Zellers said.
For Adkinson, one of the biggest benefits of gardening as exercise is the tangible reward he receives for his efforts. “Getting fresh tomatoes and fresh okra well into the fall is way better than going to the gym,” Adkinson said. “There’s really nothing better than your own sliced tomato for a sandwich.”
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Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer who specializes in hiking, travel and fitness.