Although many of us might not think of gardening as a traditional workout, research has shown that it provides many physical and mental benefits, including boosting mood and increased vitamin D levels from the sunlight. A recent study of U.S. adults 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-living people on earth—into their 90s and 100s.
“Gardening can often get overlooked as a form of exercise, but based on the feedback we’ve received from our clients, we expect this to be a growing fitness category this year,” says Rishi Mandal, co-founder and CEO of the fitness platform Future. “We’re seeing more client requests to coaches asking to program in an hour or two of gardening into their weekly workout schedules.”
But how much of a workout am I really getting out of gardening? To try to find out, I swapped my usual workouts—typically running, yoga, and weights—with gardening for a week, and I got some expert advice on how to make it into a more purposeful workout.
How hard is gardening, really?
A list of physical activities from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) includes several gardening and yard work activities. Among the ones that are considered moderate activity: light shoveling, raking, bagging grass or leaves, digging, weeding while standing or bending, trimming shrubs and trees, and pushing a power lawn mower. And vigorous ones include heavy or rapid shoveling, carrying heavy loads, felling trees, and pushing a nonmotorized lawn mower.
(The CDC’s physical activity guidelines say that every week, 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 activities.)
Most of my typical yard work tasks would be moderate-intensity activities, which don’t get my heart rate up as much as running does. So they may qualify as strength exercises but not really as cardio.
I added in cardio breaks to boost my heart rate
Knowing that I wasn’t getting in real aerobic exercise from gardening, ACSM-certified exercise physiologist Louise Valentine, MPH, CPT, of Breaking Through Wellness, suggested breaking up my tasks with something like jumping jacks, running in place, or jump squats. For example, when I’m squatting down and digging, I could set an alarm to get up after 10 minutes and do one of these exercises, she says.
I tried this, adding in some jumping jacks, which did get my heart rate up to about the same level it is when I’m running—at least for a few minutes at a time. I also purposely walked briskly from one task to another. Although this wasn’t sustained cardio, in an hour, I somehow covered almost one and a half miles, which I never would have guessed if I hadn’t tracked it on my GPS watch.
Breaking up gardening tasks with other exercises 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,” Valentine says.
Simple tweaks turn tasks into balanced strength training
Some gardening movements work mostly smaller muscle groups, but you can intentionally work larger or different muscle groups. And focusing on form during yard work can yield more strength benefits.
With raking, for example, “you could intentionally get into a lunge position, pull, engage your core—and that's a totally different type of exercise than you standing there just raking,” Valentine says.
If you’re pulling weeds in a lunge position, that builds both upper and lower body strength, Valentine says. “Think: How can I make this a total-body workout?” she suggests. That may be mixing in some push-ups, planks, or walking lunges, she says.
“Lifting and carrying heavy bags of soil, compost, or watering cans also offer a great upper body and core workout, while lifting can activate your 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 the body evenly. But in your yard, you may 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 big shovel, which I would normally hold mainly in my right hand and step down on it with my right foot to drive it into the ground, but I switched to the left side. It did feel a little unnatural, but not difficult. And later, I didn’t feel the lopsided soreness I normally would.
Warm up and cool down
Just as you would with a typical workout session, it’s important to warm up before gardening, says Valentine. “Stretching, so your body is in good alignment before you even start,” can help prevent injuries and pain, she says. She suggests chest-opening and forearm stretches. Toe touches and rolling out your shoulders can also help, Mandal adds.
I admit: It had never occurred to me to warm up before gardening, even though my forearms are often sore afterward.
When you’re all done, massaging your forearms can reduce tension and loosen them up, Valentine says. Mandal advises 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.”
Getting back to basics
Sometimes I feel achy after gardening—and not like being sore from a good workout. But by adding in some other exercises and being intentional about my movements, I got a bit of cardio in and worked larger muscle groups, and it felt like I’d gotten some solid exercise.
I can’t exactly replace running with gardening and expect the same cardio benefits, but I do plan to make gardening count as one part of my overall exercise routine.
During this week of gardening-as-workouts, I was rewarded with my first peony blooms and cilantro starting to grow, plus seeing my native plants, including spiderwort, come back strong from last year. That felt like an accomplishment, too.
“[Gardening] also offers meditative benefits, and there’s something really ‘back to basics’ about getting immersed in some terra firma,” Mandal says.
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