Q: I’ve sometimes heard people mention that “gardening is great exercise.” Is there really anything to back this up? How good of a workout am I really getting if I’m gardening?

A: I have never thought of gardening as an exercise. To me, gardening is an enjoyable and calming activity. The fun of watching plants grow and harvesting fresh fruit, vegetables and flowers is reward enough. But gardening is also beneficial to my (and your) physical and mental health. It can provide a moderate level of aerobic exercise which utilizes all of your muscle groups.

The Virginia Extension Service indicates that one can expend as much effort raking leaves as you would during a leisurely bike ride. Trimming woody plants is the equivalent of walking at a moderate pace. Heavier work, such as turning compost, clearing brush or stacking firewood is the equivalent of a light aerobics class.

Exercise received during gardening is of high quality and appropriate for all age groups. Jogging, soccer or other types of strenuous exercise are a lot harder on the body than yard work. This means that an old timer, such as me, can find a wide range of gardening and lawn tasks, with varied physical exertion levels, that meet my needs. My wife believes that turning the pages in seed catalogues counts as mental but not physical exercise.

The National Institute of Health recognizes gardening as a healthful exercise. It claims that you should do gardening activities for at least 30 minutes a day and 3 times a week.

The Iowa State Extension Service (1993) conducted a study to determine the number of calories that might be used when an individual does an hour of various garden and lawn activities. A manual reel lawn mower is a great place to start for maximizing the number of calories you burn. The Iowa Extension personnel claim that a woman will burn about 400 calories and hour while a man will burn almost 500. If you are like me, and use a power mower, I will burn 350 calories and hour while my wife might burn only 250. Regardless, I’m still grateful that it only takes me 20 minutes to mow and trim my lawn.

Planting or replacing trees and shrubs is another great way to provide an upper body work out and burn 250 to 350 calories an hour. Most of the exercise comes from digging holes in the hard packed, dry Colorado soils. I was unable to find out how many calories working with a 20 pound iron soil bar would burn but I’m sure it would add several calories an hour!

One of the best gardening activities is turning the compost pile. Specialists indicate that the activity will burn 100 calories in 15 minutes. That seems to involve some heavy lifting. Our arid climate does have its benefits. Compost piles do not do well, and this is an activity that we do not have to do as frequently as our friends in more humid climates.

Once we have spaded and turned our soils, burning 300 to 400 calories and hour and giving our upper body, arms and legs a good work out we need to rake out the garden. This activity takes me about 10 minutes to do and will burn 250 to 350 calories and hour. After that we need to weed all summer long. Weeding will give our legs, hips, buttocks and hamstrings a moderate work out, if we bend or stoop while we weed. I imagine that cutting fresh flowers, picking peppers, tomatoes or peaches would consume about the same level of calories.

Gardening for 30 minutes a day will improve flexibility, strengthen joints, decrease blood pressure and cholesterol levels, as well as lower the risks of developing diabetes and slow the development of osteoporosis. I tried to explain these benefits to one of my grandsons, as I tried to convince him to help weed in my garden, but he was in too much of a rush to go to his soccer game to pay much attention to me!

Contributed by Dr. Ed Carley, Certified Colorado Gardener

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