Several years ago I decided to plant a back yard garden. Nothing fancy or particularly ornate – just a few vegetables – tomatoes, zucchini, squash, spinach and lettuce. I threw in a few pumpkin seeds and sunflowers for good measure and off to the side, a bed of wildflowers for color. I was in the throes of a simplification phase back then, consciously looking for ways to reduce my footprint and uncomplicate my life. Spending more time outdoors and growing my own produce seemed like steps in the right direction.
What I didn’t anticipate was the enthusiasm with which my dogs would embrace my gardening endeavor which evolved into a five month ritual of monkey-see, monkey-do. I’d spend the morning digging rows with spade and hoe; my Lab would follow, excavating random garden craters with her massive forepaws. Afternoons spent pulling bindweed and purslane were outdone by my German Short-Haired Pointer’s systematic extraction of whole tomato plants at dusk. There’s nothing quite as disheartening as seeing the Big Daddy Hybrid that you’ve faithfully and lovingly nurtured for three months perishing in the proud jaws of your dog. I threw in the towel in mid-August when I discovered that my ripe and robust summer squash and zucchinis had become makeshift organic chew toys.
Despite the challenges I faced with the “local fauna,” the fitness benefits I enjoyed in cultivating that little plot of earth were substantial. Gardening and yard care are outstanding lifestyle exercises; but it’s a modern day anomaly – we’ll pay the big bucks for a landscaping firm to manicure our lawns for 30 minutes each week then spend hours at the gym huffing and puffing on elliptical machines. Yet gardening represents a complete workout: Strength training, endurance, and flexibility. All body parts come in to play including the upper body, arms, core muscles, back and legs.
My modest garden became a little outdoor gym where I burned as much as 200 calories per hour:
- Digging and hoeing – 150-200 calories/hr
- Mowing – 180-240 calories/hr
- Weeding – 150-180 calories/hr
- Raking – 120-160 calories/hr
- Planting, dividing, and transplanting – 135-180 calories/hr
In addition to the impressive calorie burn, gardening presents a wide range of physical and emotional health benefits including:
- Improved stamina and flexibility
- Decreased risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and osteoporosis
- Stronger bones and joints
- Increased energy levels
- Improved overall mental health and decreased depression
- Stronger sense of life satisfaction
- Improved food diet if vegetables are being grown – in essence, the cultivation of one’s own salad!
There’s also a certain “spiritual” satisfaction that comes with performing purposeful, productive labor that’s good for the environment and contributes to sustainability efforts. For many, simply being outdoors tends to calm, relax and restore. Likewise, careful exposure to natural sunlight boosts Vitamin D intake, the usual result of which is increased Serotonin levels and improved mood and energy levels. Gardening is also an excellent activity for family members to enjoy together.
However, several precautions should be taken in order to avoid injury, especially for those new to gardening. First and foremost, avoid over-exertion. Most physicians and fitness experts recommend 30 minutes of moderate garden activity to start, which can be lengthened as one’s stamina and general fitness level improve. Also, be smart and use good physical form so as to avoid injury. Stretch beforehand, lift with your legs, use your core, squat down instead of bending over, and avoid twisting awkwardly. Vary your activities – rake a little, prune a little, pull a few weeds. Take breaks from time to time and be sure to hydrate, especially on very hot days.
The myriad of benefits that are derived from tilling the soil inspired me to take another crack at the old garden this year. After all, my dogs are much older and slightly less destructive. What did I have to lose? While poking around my local Home Depot earlier in the spring, I got to talking to Hector in Hardware, who convinced me that home-grown produce was in my future and all I had to do was fashion a few doggie-proof containers, which I hired him to build, complete with high-security, impossible to penetrate chicken wire, that so far have yet to be breached. A back yard garden bunker; nothing fancy or particularly ornate – just a few vegetables.
And I’m dreaming each night of squash and zucchinis.
Gardening for Fitness Resources
Look for these at your local library or book store: