In the Garden:
New England
March, 2004
Regional Report

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Improved health and gorgeous salpiglossis ... who could ask for more from their gardening efforts!

Gardening for My Bones

Gardening for me is as much about the process as the product. I relish the flavor of fresh-picked peas and tomatoes and the fragrance of nicotiana wafting in the evening breeze, but that's not why I toil in the soil. I do it because I love the transformation, both of the garden and of me. It is hard work. Gardening takes energy and uses many muscles. But as tired as I am after a day of preparing new beds, I also feel happy and satisfied -- a "gardener's high," not unlike the "runners high" that athletes feel after a workout. Gardening is, after all, good exercise.

The exercise benefit of gardening is not new to anyone who's dug up sod to make room for a new garden. And when you think about the fact that you can burn 250 to 350 calories per half hour in the process, it almost makes you stop cursing the fact that you ever nurtured that dense lawn to begin with. Yet I was surprised at the findings of one study on the health benefits of gardening conducted at the University of Arkansas.

Gardening and Osteoporosis
Researchers were looking for the form of exercise that held the greatest benefit for preventing osteoporosis in older women. They looked at the health records of more than 3,000 women over 50 and examined how often the women performed yard work, calisthenics, bicycling, dancing, aerobics, swimming, jogging, walking, and weight training. What did they find? Only two activities had a significant impact on maintaining healthy bone mass: yard work (including gardening) and weight training.

When you think about it, a lot of gardening and yard work involves weight-bearing motion -- digging holes, shoveling compost, pushing a mower -- which we know to be important for healthy bones. The other advantage of these activities is that we do them outside where the sun helps raise our levels of vitamin D, which aids the absorption of calcium that's necessary for bone health.

Another benefit of gardening as exercise is our enjoyment of it. The rewards are so great that we're not likely to quit out of boredom. For many of us, it's a long-term relationship.

Gardening is not considered aerobic enough to replace other forms of aerobic exercise that benefits our hearts, but the up-and-down motions can sure tire the thighs and make us winded enough to think we MUST be doing our hearts some good.

Of course, when we recognize that gardening is such good exercise, we have to treat it as such and not forget the warm up. It can be hard to start slowly in a northern climate where we burst out of a relatively sedentary winter indoors into the frenzy of spring planting.

For years I spent Mother's Day raking, digging, and otherwise working hard in the garden instead of lunching at a restaurant, and paid for it later with an aching back that rendered me nearly immobile the next day. Then I started paying attention to the warning signs that my back needed a rest. Now I know that if I stop and stretch every hour and a half, and switch activities frequently, I can keep my back in good shape for all the summer fun that lies ahead.

Gotta go, it's time to start practicing those deep knee bends ...


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