father holds his daughter and both are holding freshly picked vegetables

Why gardening makes great exercise

Ready for a more active lifestyle?

> Talk to your primary care provider first

If you get into gardening, it can quickly become an obsession.

Whether beautifying your yard or growing food, the mental and dietary health benefits of tending to and enjoying the fruits of your labor are well documented.

But what about the physical benefits? Can you get more out of those invested hours?

Kelly Bogowith, lead therapist for OSF Rehabilitation at OSF HealthCare Saint Anthony’s Health Center, says yes.

“Growing your food, getting outside, breathing fresh air and being closer to nature all provide wonderful health benefits. But gardening also offers physical activities that can improve the big four – endurance, strength, balance and flexibility,” She said.

Endurance

A gardening session is a perfect opportunity to stay active and push your comfort level.

“Endurance is essential for good health. Our bodies are designed to move. Keeping the body systems operating optimizes health,” Kelly said. “The good news – you don’t need to do rigorous exercises. You just need to stay active and avoid the couch.”

Gardening often requires walking, raking, weeding and shoveling – all great activities to elevate your heart rate and burn calories.

Strength

Muscles are required! Carrying goodies from store to car to garage to planting offers many chances to maintain and build your muscles. Don’t forget – pulling on stubborn weeds, carrying the harvest, and lifting bags of topsoil, fertilizer and mulch.

“It’s easy to overlook how much gardening tests your strength. If you move one thing at a time and start working, change the way you work. Make these opportunities strength-training exercises,” Kelly said.

When you have to move multiple heavier items, Kelly recommends splitting the items into repetitions. You can move five bags of mulch and take a break before moving five more.

“Any kind of lifting or shoveling can be treated like a gym workout. You can even switch hands between reps for a full-body workout,” Kelly said. “Using a wheelbarrow is a great way to work in deadlifts safely. Stand balanced with your back straight and equally lifting on both handles. Pushing a wheelbarrow also helps with endurance.

“Just remember to lift with your legs and make sure your back is not rounded. Avoid bending and twisting to protect your back.”

Balance

part body of young farmer hands holding a seedling in blurred nature background.

Gardening often requires us to kneel and crawl, carry awkward or heavy items, pull on watering hoses and move cautiously among plants. All of these demands can help to tune and improve our balance.

Staying active in different positions and having a strong core are essential for good balance,” Kelly said. “And, again, gardening is just as good as any gym. Gardening can condition the body and improve blood pressure.”

Kelly’s suggestions:

  • Crawling – Working on your hands and knees tones your core and develops fine motor skills.
  • Holding positions – Leaning, extending your arms and legs and changing your head’s position all help train your core muscles to adjust subtly and keep you balanced. Don’t hold things that are heavy away from your base.
  • Pushing or pulling – These actions help with core and fine muscle development while training your body to maintain balance while exerting maximum effort.
  • Squatting – Use a standard squatting motion. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, back straight and squat. When finished, raise back up or move into a crawling position.

“You may have experienced a loss of balance when standing up too fast. That feeling is due to a drop in your blood pressure caused by the sudden change from sitting to standing,” Kelly said. “If you’re dizzy when you stand, pause for a minute before attempting to walk.”

Flexibility

If you don’t follow an exercise program or you spend your day working at a desk, it’s easy for your muscles to lose flexibility and your joints to stiffen up. Staying active prevents our joints and muscles from deteriorating.

“That’s what makes gardening so versatile. You can treat it like a hobby that keeps you active or turn up the effort and challenge your conditioning,” Kelly said. “Keep your movements deliberate and controlled. Hold for 30-60 seconds. Do not bounce or make sudden movements while stretching.”

Take opportunities to stretch your large muscles, including upper and lower back, hamstrings and calves.

Safety

Don’t forget to warm up and make sure you are ready for physical activity. Stay hydrated and use sunscreen, and wear a wide-brim hat and sunglasses. Watch for the warning signs of heat exhaustion.

“Don’t look at gardening as something you need to get done all in one day. Treat it as your activity time and go out three or four times a week,” Kelly said. “If you get winded, sore or tired, take a break. Use the same awareness you would use at the gym.”

As always, check with your primary care provider before making any drastic changes in your physical activity.

About Author: David Pruitt

David Pruitt is a writer for the Marketing & Communications division of OSF HealthCare. He has a bachelor’s of journalism from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and worked as a reporter before joining OSF HealthCare in 2014.

An avid golfer and fisherman, David was born and raised Alton, Illinois, which is where he currently resides with his son, James.

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Categories: Diet & Exercise, Wellness