Medical and fitness gurus are finally recognizing gardening as an excellent exercise. Veteran gardeners, of course, have long known they get a full-body workout from planting, hoeing, raking, double-spading a garden bed, mulching, etc.
But some doctors still need convincing. A routine medical appointment with a new internist can often be exasperating for the seasoned gardener. “What do you do for exercise?” The white coat inevitably asks.
If the internist is younger than 40, he is apt to purse his lips in disapproval. He may launch into a stock lecture, touting gyms and jogs. For all too many medical professionals, “gardening” conjures up a lady wearing a beribboned straw hat and spotless pigskin gloves as she sits at a teak potting bench, where she will curl nothing heavier than a slender trowel.
We must forgive the young MD. Still paying off years of med school loans, he may see dozens of patients every day and not extricate himself from the clinic until evening. Weekends — when he is not on call — are for catching up on sleep and catching up with his family. With little time for the garden himself, he may know little about the heavy labor it exacts of the gardener.
Moderate Intensity Exercise
But that gap in medical knowledge is closing. In 2009, researchers at Kansas State University determined gardening was a “moderate intensity” exercise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say a 30 minute session of moderate intensity exercise daily — or 3.5 hours weekly — is ideal for achieving physical fitness. The 14 gardeners who were studied at KSU put in more exercise time than that. They averaged a whopping 33 hours of garden exercise a week in early spring. Then they “slacked off” to 15 hours a week in summer.
Medical professionals concede that gardeners are likely to stay with their chosen form of exercise, which has a much lower boredom factor than running on a treadmill or lifting free weights.
In June 2010, garden clubs in numerous states launched a “National Gardening Exercise Day” across America. The organizers promoted garden work as solid aerobic exercise.
Effective for Weight Loss/Maintenance
Fitness experts have calculated the caloric expenditure of typical gardening chores. Turning compost can burn 300 calories in a half hour. In that same time frame, bagging leaves uses up 162 calories; spading over soil burns 202; digging a hole for a shrub can burn 350 calories.
Lessons of a Wounded Gardener
I have no clue how many calories I burned building the “henge,” a raised garden bed, measuring 12 feet in diameter and resurrected from a crumbling stone ruin of unknown purpose (see photo #2). The henge project began 9 months after I'd broken my leg and 21 months after that leg underwent a partial knee replacement. Obviously I didn't need any more injuries, as I wielded a pickax to demolish the surviving stone wall, a spade to extricate half buried stones and shears to cut up the profuse weeds inside the rubble. Then came the tasks of ripping out the weeds, rebuilding the stone wall and transporting soil and mulch to the site. The final phase involved digging up and replanting irises overcrowded in another site.
Those labors caused many muscle aches — but no injuries. A few stretches before each henge session warmed up the muscles. I observed the gardener's version of cross-training: instead of spending an hour on any single activity, I would work the pickax for 20 minutes, then sit tailor-style while sorting rocks for the rebuilding and spend the next 20 minutes troweling out weed roots. At every stage of demolition and reconstruction, there was always an overlap of chores, taxing different muscles groups in different ways.
Most importantly, I paced myself. The project took two months, with most of the labor taking place on Saturdays and Sundays and one weekday afternoon. I labored for no longer than 90 minutes at a time, before taking a substantive break.
The henge project offered other benefits than building muscle and reducing fat. Busting up dirt and rocks also busted up stress. Soaking up Vitamin D from sunshine helped rebuild bone. And completing such a physically challenging project was a boost to an ego worn down by months spent with crutches, cane and wheelchair.