Gardening Articles: Health :: Health

Gardening is Exercise (page 2 of 4)

by Dan Hickey

Gardening as Exercise

The health benefits of gardening are impressive. Gardening uses all the major muscle groups — the muscles that do most of the calorie burning — in the human body. Legs, buttocks, shoulders, stomach, arms, neck, and back all get a workout. Gardening also increases flexibility and strengthens joints. Most gardeners have experienced the burning sensation of overworked legs and arms, but what we haven't known until recently is how much, how often, and at what intensity we should garden to get health benefits.

Recent research indicates that 30 minutes daily of moderate exercise such as gardening lowers blood pressure and cholesterol levels, helps prevent diabetes and heart disease, and prevents or slows osteoporosis. You may even live longer. That's all good news for gardeners.

On the other hand, strenuous exercise for relatively inactive people may pose risks. A recent study of 21,000 male Harvard University alumni showed that risk of heart attack among sedentary people was more than 100 times greater during strenuous activity than during light or no exercise. The risk during strenuous activity was only 2.4 times greater for people who exercised at least five times a week. In the Harvard study, gardening was one of the top exercise activities reported by the moderately active men in the study.

The greatest reduction in risk of coronary heart disease occurs between those who do almost no exercise and those who exercise moderately each day. It is important to note that most heart attacks — 96 percent — don't occur during strenuous activity, but the 4 percent of people who do have a heart attack during strenuous activity are sedentary or have heart disease. The bottom line — moderate exercise is better than doing nothing, and for most people probably better than strenuous exercise.

How much is enough? Researchers now say you can break up the exercise sessions into short bursts (at least 8 minutes) of moderate activity throughout the day. Although each short activity has minimal health benefits, as long as those exercise sessions total 30 minutes, you'll profit. For example, if you weed for 10 minutes in the morning, push a mower for 10 minutes in the afternoon, and chop wood for 10 minutes in the evening you get similar health benefit as you would doing 30 consecutive minutes of comparable activities.

"These activities need to be of at least moderate intensity," says Dr. William Haskell, professor of medicine at the Stanford University Center for Research in Disease Prevention. "A person has to do more than putter around a flower bed." Haskell defines a moderate activity as the equivalent of a brisk walk (3-4 mph).

Although gardening is great for improving your overall health, Haskell advises combining moderate activity such as gardening with a program of regular aerobic exercise such as climbing stairs, cycling, jogging, or swimming. That's because aerobic exercise utilizes large muscle groups (usually the legs) over an extended period of time, and as its name implies, makes you breathe harder. Aerobic exercise offers additional health benefits — improved lung functioning and increased heart strength and efficiency — that you won't get from moderate exercise like gardening.

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