By now everyone knows we should be more active on a daily basis. We know sitting all day at a desk does as much damage to our health as smoking cigarettes. We know our goal should be walking 10,000 steps in a day. Sure, it sounds easy but it means you need to get in a minimum of five miles of walking per day. If you walk at a brisk pace this can be an hour and 15 minutes or more.
If this doesn’t sound appealing or practical, I have a much better idea. Join me and let’s celebrate National Gardening Exercise Day next Wednesday, June 6. Yes, it’s a real observance.
Gardening Exercise Day reminds us to go out and burn off calories and have fun doing it, the way Mother Nature intended you to do. National Gardening Exercise Day recognizes the important physical health benefits of gardening.
If you’re a gardener, you know gardening is exercise. Experts say the various activities and tasks of gardening ultimately use all of the major muscle groups. In addition, strenuous gardening activities such as raking, hoeing, and digging are both aerobic and muscle strengthening.
Sixty minutes of steady gardening work involving activities like weeding, digging, mulching, carrying materials, and so on gives you the equivalent of walking five miles – there is your 10,000 steps in a day. After this past weekend of working in my garden, I can attest to how sore I was yesterday.
Everyday gardening will burn 300 calories per hour, the same as walking, golfing, or other low-impact exercises. If you get into heavy yard work, you can double the calorie burn, which is as good as running, cycling, or strenuous interval training.
According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, gardening is an ideal form of exercise because it combines three types of fitness: Strength, endurance, and flexibility. Bending and stretching to pull weeds or reaching up high (safely!) provides your flexibility. It takes strength to dig or carry gardening materials. Anyone who’s spent a day working in his or her yard knows it takes a surprising amount of endurance.
This is great – but there’s something even more important to me. Exposure to plants, soil and nature is good for your mental health too. Spending time outside in nature reduces stress. Exposure to sunshine (safely with sunscreen!) helps regulate your mood and provides vitamin D. Instead of running on the road to nowhere on a treadmill instead, you might have beautiful flowers or a nice harvest from your vegetable garden. Believe it or not, even if you don’t grow anything edible, AHTA studies show gardeners eat a wider variety of healthy vegetables and eat more veggies overall than non-gardeners.
Another benefit of gardening comes from the opportunity to focus on a task and enjoy the effortless ability to engage our attention. Researchers at the Landscape and Human Health Lab at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have studied the human capacity for “directed attention,” which is what happens when we use smartphones, email, and other electronics. When we run short of this kind of attention, we get cranky and stressed out, and our thinking processes slow down.
When we enjoy activities in a natural environment, like gardening or nature walks, the repetitive soothing nature of these tasks helps us develop “effortless attention,” which replenishes our brain’s energy.
There’s no excuse in San Diego with our excellent year-round weather not to get outside 30 to 60 minutes three times a week. With more hours of sunshine after work, this is something you can do. Early mornings are also ideal for getting outside (and good if you want to avoid sun exposure).
So you don’t own a yard? Even a balcony or a patio can provide space to grow veggies, herbs, or flowers. Or do what we love to do at Good Earth Plant Company: add plants to your indoor environment. Our horticultural technicians move around a lot. We help them meet their Fitbit goals – and get paid for it! You may need to add a little to your workout with a walk through the park.
Consider joining a community garden. The San Diego Community Garden Network is on a mission to help create, support, and grow community gardens. It can direct you to a garden in your area, or help you start one.
People who start gardening are more likely to stick with it and do it often, because it’s fun and rewarding. It doesn’t seem like exercise. Plus you get something out of it in addition to your improved physical and mental health. You beautify your surroundings and you can enjoy the flowers, fruits and vegetables you grow.
If you’ve got kids who are about to finish their school year, get them involved in a gardening project this summer. Help them develop healthy habits and skills that will last a lifetime. So put down those smartphones, pick up a shovel and get dirty! You probably missed out on National Naked Gardening Day in May. So don’t miss this one. Take time next Wednesday, June 6, to celebrate one of America’s favorite hobbies. Go out and exercise with, and among, your plants. And no cheating by using a leaf blower or gas powered trimmers and lawn mowers.