If you've ever spent a day working in the garden and woken up the next morning feeling as if you've run a marathon, you know gardening is hard work. It's easy to forget you're exercising when the sun's at your back and you're surrounded by flowers. But bending, raking, digging and hoisting fertilizer require strength, endurance and coordination.
In fact, a Kansas State University study found that gardening fell within the federal Centers for Disease Control's recommendations for intensity of exercise. You also burn between 250 and 300 calories an hour all without a boring treadmill.
"The benefits of gardening can be put into two categories, health related and skill related," says Fabio Comana, senior fitness educator with the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Health benefits include cardiovascular fitness, muscular endurance (the ability to keep moving without fatigue), muscular strength, flexibility and decreased body fat, says Comana. In addition, the skills required for reaping what you sow increase agility, balance and coordination.
Gardening is great exercise for people of different ages and physical abilities, says Paul Cooke, a physiatrist with New York City's Hospital for Special Surgery. "Even people who can't play a sport like tennis can garden," he notes.
The key is being fit enough so you can enjoy gardening without getting injured, says Cooke. This involves an adequate warmup and a few stretching and strengthening exercises to help reduce the risk of soreness and injury.
Before you start
Apply sunscreen and wear breathable fabrics, supportive shoes, gardening gloves and a hat. Use a bucket to carry tools and save yourself a lot of back-and-forth. Keep yourself well hydrated by drinking water every 15 minutes, particularly if it's a warm day, recommends Comana. "Plus, as with any new exercise, start slowly. Don't try to do it all on the first day."
Keep these tips in mind to reduce the risk of muscle soreness:
- Change positions or activities every 15 minutes
- Use a kneeling pad to reduce stress on knees, and consider buying ergonomic gardening tools with thicker handles and nonslip grips to lessen stress on hands
- If bending hurts your lower back, try using raised planters
- Use a wheelbarrow or garden cart to carry bags and soil
- Bend forward at the hips, not at the waist
- Bring items close to your body to lift—avoid reaching and lifting to put less stress on your back
Warm up: Walk briskly around the garden for a few minutes. Follow with simple stretches.
Stretch major muscle groups:
Stand tall with your left foot a few inches in front of your right foot and your left toes lifted. Bend your right knee slightly and lean forward from your hips; rest both palms on top of your right thigh for balance. Do not round your back. Hold 20 seconds and switch legs.
Stand and touch a wall or sturdy tree for balance. Grasp top of one ankle behind you and pull ankle gently toward your bottom. Straighten hip by moving knee backward. Hold for 20 seconds and switch legs.
Lower back (you may want to do this indoors, since it requires lying on the floor):
Lie on your back with your knees bent and arms out to the side. Keeping knees and legs together, slowly drop knees over to one side as far as flexibility allows, keeping your shoulders and upper body on the floor. Hold 10 seconds and slowly bring legs back up and over to the other side.
Perform strengthening exercises (before or after gardening, or on alternate days):
Do these simple moves—one set two or three times a week—to strengthen your gardening muscles and prevent injury.
Basic squats (strengthen legs):
Stand in front of a sturdy chair, feet shoulder width apart, arms extended in front of you. Bend at the knees and hips and slowly squat down, gently touching the chair without fully sitting down, and then slowly stand back up. Repeat 10 times.
Countertop push-ups (upper body and arms):
Stand facing a countertop an arm's length away. Place hands on the countertop about shoulder width apart and at chest height. Tighten abdominal muscles and keep back straight as you bend your arms and slowly lower yourself into a push-up position until arms form a 45-degree angle. Slowly push back to starting position and repeat 15 times.
Modified plank (core and back muscles):
Lie face down on a mat on your forearms, elbows directly under shoulders. Support yourself on your elbows and knees, keeping body in a straight line without arching or dipping your back. Start with 10 to 15 seconds and work your way up to 60 seconds.
Balance booster (helps you keep your balance on uneven terrain):
Stand near a wall or countertop for safety. Stand on one leg, keeping eyes focused straight ahead, and count to 10, using the wall for balance only if necessary to keep from falling. Switch legs and repeat. Challenge yourself to reach 60 seconds.
Repeat some of the warmup stretches as a cooldown. Take a hot shower to loosen up stiff muscles after a day of gardening, recommends Cooke. "For sore joints, try an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen, or apply ice to reduce inflammation."