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Need Exercise? Turn That Tough Row to Hoe Into a Workout

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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About four times a year, my husband looks at our back yard and decides he's going to "hack down the jungle." He spends a weekend with pruners and shears cutting and lopping greenery, hauling off green waste in a big container and sprucing up flowerbeds.

At the end of that time in the garden, he looks proudly at his work and usually says something along the lines of, "Boy, I'm wiped. I feel like I've worked out all day." To this, I usually reply with amusement and appreciation, "Honey, you did work out all day."

If you're looking to take a break from your usual workout regimen and give yourself a different kind of spring training, look no further than your own yard.

Gardening is excellent exercise for body and mind, even if it's not the first thing we associate with exercise. As a society, we've been conditioned to think of exercise in terms of activities that require machines and athletic shoes and involve sports or going to a fitness center.

But before health clubs and convenience devices came along, people became fit by doing manual labor in their yards and at home.

We can glean lessons from the Amish, who live physically active lives without stepping into a fitness center or using modern technology like exercise bikes. In a study, 98 Amish adults in a southern Ontario farming community wore pedometers and logged their physical activities for seven days. Researchers found that Amish women engaged in moderate forms of activity, including gardening and housework, and reached an average of 12,196 daily steps. Amish men, most of whom were farmers, performed 10 hours of vigorous physical work per week and took an average of 18,425 steps a day. The majority of the Amish had a normal body mass index.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, appeared in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise this year.

Gardening writer Dan Hickey eloquently summed up the parallels between modern exercise and gardening when he wrote the following description on the National Gardening Association's Web site, "Turning compost is essentially lifting weights. Raking is like using a rowing machine. Pushing the mower is similar to walking on a treadmill. Our exercise machines are post-hole diggers, shovels, rakes, push mowers and wheelbarrows. Our running track is the yard and garden."

What kinds of gardening activities are beneficial?

Giving the lawn a haircut with a manually powered lawn mower and pushing a wheelbarrow can be cardiovascular activity. Weeding, digging, hoeing and shoveling in the dirt, trimming shrubs and pruning plants can help develop strength and muscular endurance.

There's another benefit.

Gardening enthusiasts have told me that while their activities involve tiring manual labor, it's mentally relaxing to be outdoors, focusing on tasks other than those that are work-related, taking care of living things and enjoying the sunshine.

That said, gardening can leave us with achy spots. It's important to be aware of correct posture when we're bending down or pulling objects. We need to squat and bend at the knees when we're lifting objects or placing them on the ground. It's also essential to take stretching breaks when we're kneeling or bending forward for extended periods. As with any type of exercise, proper form is always a must.


(Lisa Liddane is a health and fitness writer for The Orange County Register and an American Council on Exercise-certified group fitness instructor. Write to her at the Register, P.O. Box 11626, Santa Ana, Calif. 92711 or send e-mail to


(c) 2004, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.


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