Better Fitness is as Close as Your Own Backyard

Senior Man Gets Exercise While GardeningFar from just pulling a stray weed here and there, many of us have discovered that backyard gardening activities are great alternatives to lifting weights and running on treadmills. And you can’t beat the view.

At a time when fitness experts are encouraging all of us to take up moderate exercise, backyard gardening is being recognized as a healthy lifestyle habit that can provide real health benefits for all, including seniors. Studies have shown that even 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day can decrease the risk of heart disease and diabetes. And yes, gardening counts. By doing just 30 minutes of active gardening per day, you can burn 150 calories or more.

On the practical side, you can burn as much body fat pushing a lawnmower as you can taking a step class. Plus gardeners have the added satisfaction of seeing their accomplishments—both muscular and horticultural—grow before their eyes.

Staying Safe and Feeling Good

While it may not feel like a traditional workout, if you’re new to gardening, you will probably feel the effects on your muscles the very next day—maybe even as you climb out of bed.

Gardening provides a great way to enjoy the outdoors while getting fit, according to Jeffrey P. Restuccio, author of Fitness the Dynamic Gardening Way (Balance of Nature Publishing, 1992).

“Gardening addresses the major reason most diet and exercise programs fail—long-term incentive and motivation,” he says. But it’s important to do it correctly, and to pay attention to how you perform such seemingly simple gardening tasks as lifting, says Restuccio.

Restuccio, a test gardener for Organic Gardening magazine, created his fitness-gardening program while working out in his own garden at home. Here are some tips to help keep you happy and safe while getting fit in the garden:

Talk with your doctor before starting any exercise program. Especially if you haven’t been exercising regularly, you’ll want to get your doc’s OK first.

Protect yourself. Wear closed-toe shoes. Remember sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses. Use bug-repellant when necessary. Keep water or another healthy beverage within easy reach. Don’t forget the safety glasses if you’re trimming trees or shrubs.

Take time to stretch before hitting the garden. Stiffness and pain after your first few gardening sessions can indicate a need to spend more time warming up and stretching first. When stretching, use gradual movements. Hold the stretch; don’t bounce. And don’t hold your breath. Just breathe normally.

Use your legs when picking things up. Don’t bend at the waist. You may want to place orange markers in your garden as a reminder to straighten your back and use your legs.

Choose manual over electric tools. Long-handled trimmers, for example, will help shape your waist as well as your hedge.

Alternate your grip when raking, digging, or hoeing. If you’re right-handed, rake or hoe first with a right-handed grip, then switch to a left-handed grip. This helps to work muscle groups evenly on both sides of the body.

Go for balance. Combine light gardening with stretching activities, such as the “lunge and weed”: lunge forward with one leg, weed for about 10 seconds, then stand up and alternate legs.

Step up the pace. After warming up with light activities, try to keep moving at a brisk pace. Aim for a slightly elevated heart rate and a steady breathing rate. A little light perspiration is good for you! But pace yourself. Aim for two- or three-hour periods of gardening (including rest and water breaks) rather than six-to-10-hour marathons.

Avoid injury. Use knee pads when kneeling. Try to keep from making sudden twisting movements. Don’t stay in a bent-over position too long. Stand up, stretch a bit, and walk around.

Cool down. Bring your heart rate down slowly by ending your gardening time with a final stretching session.

Calories Burned in Gardening vs. Non-Gardening Activities

Calories burned per hour for a 150-pound person:

Non-Gardening Activities:
Hiking: 422
Swimming: 360
Bowling: 164
Dancing: 300

Gardening Activities:
Mowing: 404
Raking: 281
Weeding: 300
Trimming hedges: 316

Sources for calorie-consumption data: NutriStrategy; NetFit.