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Published on: 07/27/09 4:54 PM

Feature : A Gym in Your Garden


A gym in your garden!

Take it from one who has learnt the benefits of gardening in the best way possible: me. Some years ago, I moved into a house up in the Nilgiris that was 102 years old and came with more than a half-acre of garden.

There were lawns, flower beds, a strawberry patch, herb garden, peach, lime and pear trees and a rose round. I did not inherit all this verdure; some of it, I, with the help of an able gardener, built up from scratch. It was a lot of hard work but immensely satisfying. What I did not realise at the time was it helped me shed excess flab and feel ever so fit.

There I was in my garden, weeding, pushing and pulling, pruning, trimming, hacking, planting. It was like taking care of a child, requiring constant care and attention.

All that manual labour was helping me get in touch with parts of the body I had almost forgotten about. Year by year (we were there for three years), I was losing weight, and looking and feeling so much the better for it. Heading to the garden, hat on head and shears in hand was an excellent motivation to take in the fresh air. My garden had turned into my personal gym!

Outdoor gym

One of the great things about gardening is that it leaves you with no choice: you just have to move your body this way and that, kneeling, squatting, sitting on your haunches. Bending to get at a dry twig above ear level. Going down on your knees to clean a particular square of a flower bed. Stretching sideways to pick a tomato or two from your vegetable patch. What you are doing is bending and stretching exercises, giving your joints a gentle workout.

Mowing the lawn for an hour, I found, actually helped me burn something like 400 calories. A personal trainer I met while on holiday in Singapore told me that jogging for a full (and for me impossible) four miles, I would burn about the same amount.

Traditional gymming with stationary cycling and weightlifting helps burn around 600 calories per session. Raking, weeding and pruning help one lose about the same amount. And here’s the best thing: you burn fat in shorter bursts in the gym or while doing some intense, timed activity. When gardening, though, you burn energy more steadily, which is more effective when trying to lose weight.

Those who have been gardening for a long time will tell you that building and maintaining a compost heap, sorting fallen branches and spreading mulch are all high on the keep-fit chart. However, one doesn’t need to do all that straight away. Gentler tasks include tidying the garden, sowing seeds and weeding patch by patch.

The central idea is gardening as a means to strengthen your body rather than strain it. It is vital to warm up before gardening. A brisk stroll around to check on plants and get an idea on what needs to be done, helps.

Some step-ups, press-ups and a few lunges in between help limber up the body and ward off stiffness. After gardening, too, it is important to do some basic stretches, geared to keep the body supple. This regular stretching lets your body achieve a wider range of movement.

Of course, a word of caution is necessary. Don’t venture into the garden if you are not well, don’t immediately plunge into strenuous work and don’t keep at it for too long. Slow and steady does the job just fine. When raking dead leaves, change the movement and alternate the sides of your body to ensure you move both sides equally. When digging, switch hands often so you use both arms equally, for an equal amount of time; this will prevent muscle pulls, repetitive motion injuries and blisters. And remember the old classic postures: bend at the knees and keep the back straight when lifting heavy items.

Other tips include wearing sunscreen, long-sleeved shirts, pants to cover your legs and a wide-brimmed hat to filter the harsh rays of the sun. Drink plenty of water to replace the moisture lost through sweat. Use gloves to help prevent blisters and splinters to your hands. Use a kneeling cushion to support your knees.

Research has shown that exercise helps relieve depression, too. It is a feel-good occupation and one where you get to reap the rewards of your labour, besides. A recent study in the U.S. also revealed that gardening is a great way for older adults to keep fit.

The study was conducted on 14 gardeners aged 63-86, whose heart rate, oxygen intake and energy expenditure was measured. It was found that gardening influences whole-body bone mineral density because it includes weight-bearing motions such as pushing a mower, digging holes, pulling weeds, carrying soil and other tasks that require using muscle groups in the entire body.

If you do not possess a garden, if you live in an apartment, do not despair. My tale has a corollary. I am back in the Nilgiris but this time, I live in a first-floor apartment. However, I have embarked on a balcony garden with a whole lot of potted plants and a small patch of turf, too.

This small piece of garden requires just as much time, attention and energy as my large garden did earlier. Potting, mulching, weeding, raking, pruning, cutting back, all of it keeps me busy, keeps my body on the move. Good for the body, great for the mind. There is a saying that gardeners live longer and I, for one, am not one bit surprised.

This ran in THE HINDU of 27 July 2009.

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Sheila Kumar • July 27, 2009

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