Your Garden Can Be Your Gym

October 01, 2016

CLINTON TOWNSHIP – It's summer in Michigan – time to trade in your free weights for freesias. Swap your dumbbells for bluebells. Trade your treadmill for tomatoes. Tend your garden and reap five important health benefits:

1. Trim your shrubs – and yourself

The movements you'll make as you garden – digging, planting, pruning, raking and weeding – make for great low-impact exercise.

In fact, one study identified muscle groups and calories burned during 30 minutes of each of the following activities:

Activity Muscle groups worked Calories burned - Women Calories burned - Men
Digging/spading the garden Upper body, back and legs 150 197
Mowing with a rotary power mower Whole body 135 177
Weeding (if you stop while you weed) Legs, hips, buttocks, hamstrings 138 181
Raking the yard Arms, shoulders, back, hamstrings, buttocks 120 157
Planting Whole body 135 177
Pruning Hands, forearms, upper back 135 177

If you're digging or raking, try doing it right handed 15 to 20 times, then switch to left-handed 15 to 20 times. Research shows that gardening for just 30 minutes daily will also help:

  • Increase flexibility
  • Strengthen joints
  • Decrease blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Lower your risk for diabetes
  • Slow osteoporosis

2. Get your Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium and helps prevent osteoporosis. You can get it from sunshine, especially during Michigan's spring and summer – 15 minutes three times weekly is all you need. The sun must shine on exposed skin without sunscreen – so go without for the first few minutes, then apply sunscreen to protect against skin cancer.

3. Eat what you grow

A garden helps you eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, which research suggests can lower your risk for stroke, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and Type 2 diabetes. It may also lower your risk for certain types of cancer. To start your garden, find a spot in your yard that receives at least six hours of sunlight. Start small, and plant things you'd really like to eat.

4. Clear your mind

"We derive benefits in terms of the sensory feedback from the smell, touch, and engaging in an activity with living plants," notes Karen Buzo, an occupational therapist with Henry Ford Macomb Behavioral Health Services. "Gardening is also a familiar, step-by-step task which keeps us in the present moment. That helps free us from stress – from dwelling in the past or anxiety about the future." Some studies have even linked gardening to a reduction in risk for dementia.

Gardening is proven to decrease cortisol, which is a good thing. Cortisol is a hormone that interferes with learning, memory, immune function and bone density while at the same time causing weight gain and increased blood pressure, cholesterol and risk for heart disease.

At the same time, garden soil contains a bacteria that's linked with increased serotonin production in the brain. That's a good thing, too, because serotonin helps regulate mood, appetite and sleep.

5. Enjoy some family time

Got kids or grandkids? Get them involved. Teaching kids the difference between weeds and plants, teaching them how to plant seeds and bulbs and letting them experience the joy of harvesting things they've grown can:

  • Cultivate a lifelong love of gardening and the outdoors.
  • Nurture an appreciation for healthy, homegrown fruits and vegetables. (Kids who garden are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables and to try new foods.)
  • Prepare them for eventually having homes and gardens of their own.

Five ground rules

  1. Set small, achievable goals for each portion of the day. Don't try to transform your yard in a weekend.
  2. Pace yourself, tackling a task steadily, a little at a time.
  3. Take five-minute breaks every hour to sit down, stretch, and drink fluids.
  4. If you must bend, bend with your knees, not your back.
  5. Ask for help if you have to move something heavy or awkward.

Protect against pain

Gardening is an activity that can work, even for people suffering from chronic pain or other disabilities. Here are some tips to enjoy gardening without the pain:

  • Create raised garden beds. Raised beds are usually four to eight inches above the ground, but beds can be created that are two to three feet high. Or, look into vertical wall or tabletop gardens.
  • Plant in pots. You can plant vegetables, flowers and even fruit trees in pots. Use containers at least 24 inches in diameter. You can put them on movable wheeled carts.
  • Use a kneeler. Foam-padded kneelers protect your knees and help prevent backaches.
  • Use long-handled tools. Tools with handles three to four feet long enable you to work more upright.
  • Change it up. Divide tasks so you're not spending a day doing one repetitive motion. For instance, weed a section, then water it, before going on to weed the next section.