Gardening is neither fast nor furious. So why is it considered a healthy pursuit?
Gardening is a real-world activity, which involves compound movements that engage several muscle groups simultaneously in ways for which our bodies are designed. Sounds impressive, but what does that really mean? You can get stronger and more flexible by incorporating gardening into your lifestyle. Gardening is also therapeutic and has been shown to reduce blood pressure, stress hormones and muscle tension.
This past spring, I decided to spruce up my front and back yards. Once I got started, I realized how physically demanding gardening can be. Most health organizations classify gardening as a moderate-to-vigorous activity, depending on the type and duration of the tasks. You can burn approximately 300-400 calories in one hour of gardening. That exceeds calories burned walking. To get an estimate of how many calories you can burn for different activities, go to www.healthstatus.com and enter your gender, age, height and weight, then select an activity.
If you’re not regularly active, you should take precautions to prevent injuries before you begin gardening, just as you should before you start any physical activity. Warm up for a few minutes and start with lighter, less intensive gardening tasks. You can slowly progress to heavier, more demanding tasks over time.
My late spring/early summer gardening began with cleaning up the numerous twigs and branches, pine cones and dead leaves that had scattered around my property during the winter. A couple of hours of raking and picking up debris involved lots of pulling and squatting – key functional movements for the arms, shoulders, back, legs and rear end.
My lawn, like most of the lawns in my neighbourhood, is composed of weeds interspersed with the occasional clump of grass. I used my stand-up weed-removing tool that eliminates bending and, therefore, reduces back strain. I started pulling weeds one at a time – a task that I find peculiarly gratifying. I pushed the weed remover into the ground, twisted it using my arms and core muscles and pulled it upwards repeatedly until I had tossed hundreds of weeds into a garbage can. Several passers-by stopped to joke with me about the futility of my endeavour. After a few hours of weeding, I realized I’d only cleared a two-foot-wide strip, which now looked like a pock-marked piece of Swiss cheese, so I gave up on that task.
Next, I headed off to my local gardening centre to get some supplies. My flower beds had eroded, so I thought I should top them up with soil. Each bag of soil weighed 40 pounds. I safely lifted bag after bag onto a dolly, keeping my knees bent to protect my back. Transferring the bags from the dolly into my car trunk, then from my trunk into my wheelbarrow provided additional exercise. Next, I pushed the wheelbarrow – loaded with three 40-pound bags at a time – around my property and placed the bags in the locations where I’d need them. I was really leaning into the wheelbarrow to get it moving and by now I was perspiring.
My next task was removing dead plants, weeds and stones from the flower beds. Then I dumped and spread soil, planted flowers and spread mulch. Afterwards, I trimmed some overgrown bushes with an electric trimmer and I swept the mess I’d made on the patio stones. Finally, I used my new, heavy-duty garden hose to water everything I’d just planted. Shlepping the hose around my property was also physically demanding.
I’d invested many hours of effort over several days to get my property up to par. The experience was a physical workout, but it was calming and purposeful. Reconnecting with nature is a restorative experience. Getting your hands dirty – in your own backyard, a community garden or even if you’re limited to potted plants – is a treat for all of the senses. Some medical, mental health and assisted-living facilities are beginning to recognize the healing value of gardens and horticulture therapy. Exposure to Mycobacterium vaccae, a strain of bacterium naturally found in soil, which we ingest as we breathe in nature, triggers the release of serotonin and norepinephrine, which elevates mood, decreases anxiety, improves cognition, helps regulate appetite and sleep and boosts our immune system.
I enjoy working out with dumbbells and exercise machines, but sometimes it’s best to escape the confines of the gym and perform functional, practical movements in an outdoor sanctuary. It’s beneficial for the body and the mind.