While many of us may not think of gardening as a traditional workout, research has shown that it provides many physical and mental benefits, including improving mood and boosting vitamin D levels from sunlight. A recent study of US adults ages 65 and older found that gardeners had better cardiovascular health than people who didn’t garden. It’s also a super common activity among the longest-lived people on earth between the ages of 90 and 100.
Gardening can often be overlooked as a form of exercise, but based on the feedback we’ve received from our customers, we expect this to be a growing fitness category this year, says Rishi Mandal, co-founder and CEO of the fitness platform Futures. We’re seeing more customer inquiries asking trainers to schedule an hour or two of gardening into their weekly training schedules.
But how much exercise am I really getting out of gardening? To try and find out, I swapped my usual workouts—typically running, yoga, and weights—for gardening for a week, and got some expert advice on how to turn that into a more focused workout.
How hard is gardening, really?
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) list of physical activities includes several gardening activities and yard chores. Some of those considered moderate activities include light shoveling, raking, bagging grass or leaves, digging, weeding while standing or bending over, trimming shrubs and trees, and pushing an electric lawn mower. And vigorous ones include heavy or rapid shoveling, hauling heavy loads, felling trees, and pushing a non-motorized lawn mower.
(CDC physical activity guidelines state that adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity, such as walking, or at least 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, such as running, plus muscle-strengthening activity each week.)
Most of my typical yard work activities would be moderate-intensity activities, which don’t get my heart rate up as much as running. So they may qualify as strength exercises but not quite as cardio.
I added cardio breaks to get my heart rate up
Knowing I wasn’t getting real aerobic exercise from gardening, Louise Valentine, MPH, CPT, of Breaking Through Wellness, suggested interrupting my tasks with something like jumping jacks, running in place, or jump squats. For example, when I’m squatting and digging, I might set an alarm to get up after 10 minutes and do one of these exercises, she says.
I tried this, adding some jumping jacks, which got my heart rate about the same level as when running for at least a few minutes at a time. I also purposely briskly walked from task to task. While this wasn’t sustained cardio, in an hour, I somehow covered nearly a mile and a half, which I never would have guessed if I hadn’t been tracking it on my GPS watch.
Interrupting gardening pursuits with other exercise not only gives your heart a quick boost, but it can also prevent injuries so you’re not in one fixed position for too long, says Valentine.
Simple changes turn activities into balanced strength training
Some gardening moves mostly work smaller muscle groups, but you can intentionally work larger or different muscle groups. And focusing on form while working in the yard can yield greater benefits in terms of strength.
With raking, for example, you might intentionally get into a lunge, pull, engage your core, and that’s a completely different type of exercise than just standing there raking, says Valentine.
If you’re pulling weeds in a lunge position, that builds both upper and lower body strength, says Valentine. Think: How can I make this a full-body workout? she suggests. That could mix in some pushups, planks or walking lunges, she says.
Lifting and carrying heavy bags of dirt, compost or watering cans also provide a great upper body and core workout, while lifting can activate the glutes and quads just like strength training you might do at the gym, Mandal points out.
In the gym, people typically exercise both sides of their body evenly. But in your backyard, you can use your dominant side for most tasks. If you’re pulling weeds or picking up sticks, for example, you can consciously switch to the other side. It’s probably going to feel weird, Valentine admits.
But it’s doable. I was digging up plants with a large shovel, which I normally held mostly in my right hand and stepped on with my right foot to drive it into the ground, but I switched to the left side. It felt a little unnatural, but not difficult. And later, I didn’t feel the lopsided pain that I normally would.
Warm up and cool down
Just as you would with a typical exercise session, it’s important to warm up before gardening, says Valentine. Stretching, so your body is in good alignment before you even begin, can help prevent injury and pain, she says. Suggests chest openings and forearm stretches. Toe taps and shoulder rolls can also help, adds Mandal.
I admit it: it never occurred to me to warm up before gardening, even though my forearms often ache afterward.
When you’re done, massaging your forearms can reduce tension and loosen them up, says Valentine. Mandal recommends using a foam roller or tennis ball to massage your back, hamstrings, and any other sore areas to ensure your muscles are relaxed and flexible.
Back to basics
Sometimes I feel sore after gardening and I don’t like being sore after a good workout. But by adding in a few more exercises and being intentional about my movements, I did some cardio and worked bigger muscle groups, and it felt like I was getting solid exercise.
I can’t exactly replace running with gardening and expect the same cardiovascular benefits, but I plan to make gardening count as a part of my overall exercise routine.
During this week of gardening as a workout, I was rewarded with my first peony blooms and cilantro starting to grow, as well as seeing my native plants, including spider grass, come back strong from last year. That, too, seemed like an accomplishment.
[Gardening] it also offers meditative benefits, and there’s something really back to basics about diving into a bit of dry land, Mandal says.
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