Turn Your Garden Into a Home Gym



by Eva Shaw, Ph.D.

Does the idea of gardening for fitness sound a whole lot more agreeable than dashing off to a crowded fitness center, lifting weights and jogging in circles around the track? Whether youíre new to gardening or an old hand with a bright green thumb, the great news is that gardening is great exercise. It may take the place of other fitness routines or have a positive impact on your current workout.

Garden work, including mowing, shoveling, spading and weeding, can produce real and improved health benefits. According to the Mayo Clinicís health newsletter, ďHobbies do more than just pass the time...gardening and other diversions are tickets to better health. Gardening can condition the body, building strength, coordination and flexibility.Ē

This fitness program, with the help of Nature, is good for your bones, which is smart news for all adults, especially women approaching, during and after menopausal years. Researchers at the University of Arkansas have linked regular yard work to the prevention of osteoporosis. It was found that women 50 and older who gardened at least once a week showed higher bone density readings (a very good thing, mind you) than those who performed other types of exercise. These other types included jogging, swimming, walking and even aerobic dance. The researchers didnít expect yard work to be significant. Itís taken for such a dainty activity, many said. But as any gardener knows, thereís a lot of weight-bearing motion going on in the garden, from digging holes and pulling weeds to hauling bags of humus and pushing a wheelbarrow.

An additional benefit of gardening is that itís an exercise thatís performed outdoors. Exposure to sunlight boosts vitamin D production, which aids the bodyís ability to absorb calcium. That ability, along with the weight-bearing exercise, builds and strengthens bones. That means that Natureís giving you double your moneyís worth of rewards.

The best thing about gardening as a fitness routine is that most people are willing to do it. It doesnít inspire the same ďAck, not again!Ē feelings that other exercise programs often do.

Gardening is one place in life where we can workout alone, dressed in comfortable clothing, along with receiving the added benefit of reducing stress as we increase flexibility, burn calories and strengthen bones and muscles.

To be a fit gardener, take these tips to heart:

  • Do several different types of activities in the garden. These might include turning the soil, raking leaves, digging holes for bulbs, planting vegetables, weeding. Plan to have each gardening workout last at least 5 minutes.
  • So you donít experience that ďIím stiff all overĒ feeling at the end of the day or the next morning, switch positions and stance every few minutes. That is, crouch, then kneel, then stand, then bend. Stretch at the end of each workout.
  • Exaggerate the motions youíre doing while gardening, such as large sweeps when you get after the leaves with a rake.
  • Stretch before extensive digging. Reach high over your head and try to touch the sky. Hold for a count of five, relax and repeat. Do some runnerís lunges and rotate your shoulders. Never bob or bounce when stretching as this can damage muscles. After a gardening workout, stretch again. You might want to stretch before bed, too, especially if you havenít been in the garden for some time.
  • Take extra care with your knees. Cover an old pillow or put one in a plastic trash bag on which to kneel as you garden. You may want to get a small stool with casters to roll around the garden. If the ground is rough, find a lightweight stool you can easily haul.
  • Alternate your grip. If youíre left handed, switch to your right hand while digging, and then switch back to your left hand.
  • Give your back attention. Always lift with the thighs and keep your back straight. This sounds easy, but itís almost contrary to what a body wants to do when lifting a heavy object. Be careful not to twist as you lift, as this is often when back injuries occur. Invest in a lightweight wagon or dolly to haul bags of soil amendment into your garden. While hoeing, shoveling and raking, keep your knees relaxed.
  • When bending forward from a standing position, such as when planting or trimming, bend from the hips, not the waist, which puts strain on the back.
  • Never attempt to lift more than you can comfortably handle, and roll or push heavy loads.
  • Wear gloves. I prefer the soft, but sturdy leather gloves that are made for women. Theyíre a bit pricey, but I also like smooth hands. Yes, Iíve used the cotton ones and yes, they are machine washable, but for me they just donít last. Also, rose thorns are never thwarted by cotton gloves. Wear long sleeves if youíre trimming prickly plants, such as berries, and consider the specially designed gloves that are leather up past the elbows. I like to apply a rich layer of hand cream before I put on my gloves so that my hands are getting moisturized as I work.
  • Wear sturdy shoes or boots. Itís tempting to wear the oldest sneakers on the planet for gardening, but remember, they werenít comfortable when you put them in the back of the closet and they wonít be in the garden. Besides, you need foot protection out there.
  • Select gardening tools and equipment that are comfortable for you to use. If youíre using tools that are broken or rusty, youíre probably not enjoying the garden as much as you could. Most women prefer short-handled shovels, taller women and men like the long-handled ones. Many companies are now producing tools for right and left handed gardeners and gardeners with disabilities or smaller hands.
  • Wear a hat and sunscreen. Even on cloudy days the sunís rays can damage the skin.
  • Give yourself a break. Do twenty minutes rather than a few hours. Sit in a comfortable spot, have a glass of water and enjoy the view.
  • Gardening, like any fitness activity, requires us to replenish the water in our body. Drink plenty of water when in the garden. I like to take a few plastic bottles outside with me before I begin so that I donít have to take off muddy sneakers to dash inside. Thirst is an impulse we can overrule with our minds, and even a five percent loss of bodily fluid can make us feel out of sorts.
  • For health reasons, always check with your physician before adding a new fitness routine to your schedule, especially if you have any concerns. And when talking with your doctor, find out if youíre up to date on your tetanus shot. It makes good health sense, too, if you have any pain during gardening or have a wound thatís not healing, to head for your doctor for assistance.

Studies show us that 30 minutes each day of moderate exercise, such as gardening, decreases the risk of numerous chronic ailments, including heart disease, stroke and Type-2 diabetes. According to sports medicine experts, gardening activities such as digging, raking and planting are the equivalent to sports such as snorkeling, volleyball and brisk walking. Tough gardening workouts, such as chopping wood, shoveling and tilling are on par with fencing, downhill skiing, softball and doubles tennis. In addition to gardeningís physical benefits, the psychological boost conferred by accomplishing tasks can help shake off a feeling of helplessness.

Jeffrey P. Restuccio, author of Fitness the Dynamic Gardening Way, says, ďGardening is a Zen approach to health that gives you exercise, relief from stress, nutritious fruits and vegetables, companionship of family and friends and the aesthetic pleasures of working with nature. And itís an activity you can do all your life.Ē Restuccio counsels, and Nature would agree, ďRemember to enjoy the process, not just the product.Ē

Think of gardening as an outdoor health spa and youíll increase your fitness level and have a luscious garden.

Here are some Shovel It fitness routines to get you started on Natureís ultimate exercise program. Start slowly with gardening as exercise, if youíve been out of the yard for a while.

  • Pick up that shovel, business end over your right shoulder, and hold it high over your head. Keep arms straight, shoulders relaxed and hips forward. Bend your knees slightly. Now slowly turn at the waist. This is a weight lifting and stretching exercise, so itís to be done at a snailís pace. Need to see snails in action? Just come to my garden. Now relax and switch sides, that is, have the actual shovel part of the tool over your left shoulder.
  • Push a long-handled shovel into the earth and hold it with one hand for balance. Stand with feet slightly apart and tighten the muscles throughout the calves, thighs and buttocks as you go up on your toes. Go up and down for a count of 20. This will help condition your largest muscle groups. Remember to breathe deeply as you work out. Relax and do another set of 20.
  • To strengthen the abdominal area, which in turn supports the muscles in a healthy, strong and pain-free back, do this exercise every chance you get. Simply contract your stomach muscles for a slow count of five. Relax and repeat five more times. Warning: This exercise is addictive and you may find that youíre doing it while weeding, hoeing and even driving your car or sitting at the computer. No problem, however, because itís good for you and can help flatten your tummy.
  • To strength the upper torso and increase flexibility, simply push shoulders forward and hold for a count of five. Relax and then push shoulders back, arching your spine slightly. Now relax again and lift your chin to the sky, hold and relax.

If youíre planting a fitness seed with your gardening, you may want to incorporate other exercise programs into your life, including yoga and walking.


From Shovel It: Natureís Health Plan by Eva Shaw, Ph.D. Copyright © 2001 by Eva Shaw. Excerpted by arrangement Eva Shaw, Ph.D. $15.95. Available in local bookstores or call 866-244-9047 or click here.