In discussions about the growing obesity ‘epidemic’ in the affluent countries of the world some people point to vegetable gardening as part of the solution. Obviously diet is a major factor in obesity and gardening helps people to reconnect with good food sources and increase their intake of nutritious substitutes for over-refined foods. Exercise is also listed as a reason for taking up gardening and I have heard many keen gardeners scoff at people who go to a gym, saying that if they just got out in the garden more they wouldn’t need it. So I thought I would take a look at whether gardening really is good exercise and how to maximize the benefit...
The question of what constitutes ‘good’ exercise is, of course, a relative one. For those who spend most of their life quite sedentary then almost any activity will be better for them. Likewise, the elderly and those recovering from illness will benefit from gentler exercise than athletic types. Gardening can be a great therapy for recovery and there are many other factors to consider such as the mental health benefits.
For your average person, gardening offers the potential for increasing all-round fitness. To see why, we need to understand the shift of emphasis that has occurred in the fitness ‘industry’ over the past decade. A few years ago going to a gym was all about targeting individual muscles with very specific ‘isolation’ exercises or doing aerobics for your heart. Research has found that these are not nearly as effective as were once thought. Instead, most enlightened fitness coaches now advocate ‘compound’ exercises involving many muscles and regularly changing the routine to present different challenges to the body. By activating the larger muscle groups, the heart has to work harder and the body releases hormones which encourage muscle growth and increase metabolism, burning fat.
Look at a modern fitness program and you will find the key featured exercises are squats, deadlift (lifting from the ground), lunges (stepping forward while carrying something), push, pull and twists. These don’t have to involve any special gym equipment and are all very similar to the movements when doing some heavy garden work. So digging, lifting, carrying and weeding can indeed constitute an excellent ‘whole-body workout’.
However, the intensity of garden work can also lead to problems. In a recent newspaper article entitled Spring Gardening is a Dangerous Sport doctors warn of the potential for injury. The principle of the British College of Osteopathic Medicine says that clinics experience a surge in garden-related injuries as the weather warms up. "What happens is that people forget themselves and go in all gung-ho after the relative hibernation of the winter months, forgetting that their bodies need, like the gardens, to be coaxed in gently and limbered up over a period of time. People don't associate gardening with danger which is the most dangerous thing of all." Injuries such as gardener’s back, weeder’s wrist and pruner’s neck are all preventable if you start with gentler activities as you would for any exercise and ease yourself in to the new season’s work in stages.
So, gardening can be great exercise but it is necessary to take into account other important factors. The committed vegetable gardener who has a sizeable plot or allotment and is out tending it come rain or shine will no doubt experience many of the potential health benefits. The opposite extreme is the seasonal gardener who wakes up one sunny spring day and tries to dig a whole new vegetable plot. Not only is that a recipe for injury but once dug it will probably require much less effort to maintain and give less exercise benefit.
Personally I find that my daily work in front of a computer can lead to back and neck strain if I don’t exercise regularly. During early Spring that activity can be gardening, such as the three tonnes of compost I recently moved into new raised beds – done over a period of several weeks. For the rest of the year I need a bit more than weeding my plot affords. Gardening is great for the soul and the body but in this age of desk-based activities it needs to be balanced with sensible exercise advice as well.