Gardening's Big Benefits

Researchers have found that you can reap almost the same health benefits from gardening as you would from a workout in the gym.

Mention the word fitness to most people and they immediately think of the gym. But the good news is that the gym may be much closer to home than you think - in your very own garden in fact. Researchers have found that you can reap almost the same health benefits from gardening as you would from a workout in the gym. And your mind and your emotions can also improve. Here, BUPA, a global healthcare organization, reveals how you can reap the greatest benefits from a little horticultural therapy.

Surprising as it may seem, gardening may protect your mind against developing Alzheimer’s disease. Gardens and gardening have been widely used in therapy for those with Alzheimer’s disease. The idea is that a garden helps to stimulate the brain with refreshing color and scent. It also gives people a contained and simple world that has a past and present reality.

This can be particularly helpful when the rest of the person’s life may be becoming confused and complex as a result of the condition. Cath Burley, consultant clinical psychologist from the North West Anglia Healthcare Trust from Peterborough says: “Being involved in something constructive and creative, like a garden, can help. Gardening may help slow the loss of short-term memory, one of the first facilities to be lost in Alzheimer’s disease. Skills that are learned and practiced can be retained despite the decline in overall brain function that occurs in the later stages of dementia.”

Giving patients an outside interest via a garden has another key positive outcome, Burley says -it gives both the patient and carer hope for the future. “Without hope, both patients and carers can feel overwhelmed and depressed, so it is important that activities engender feelings of hope, and gardens can do that.” 

Although detailed research on the physical benefits of gardening is limited, it is widely accepted that gardening is a form of moderate exercise. And moderate exercise for around 30 minutes per day has been found to lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. In fact, gardening has been found to help prevent type II diabetes, heart disease and strokes.

Dr. Mark Harries from the Royal College of Physicians confirms that gardening has positive physical effects. “Physical activity is always useful for the body,” he says. “If it’s something you enjoy - like gardening - then that’s even better. It means that your exercising is not a chore.” 

To reap the fitness benefits of gardening, you have to do more than just putter around. The most energetic activities in terms of the calories used are digging and shoveling. Spend 30 minutes on either of these activities and you can burn up to between 200 to 360 calories. Mowing the lawn is another high calorie burner activity.

Some former fitness enthusiasts have found that activities in the garden actually mimic the type of exercise that they do in the gym. For example, turning compost has been likened to lifting weights. Raking has been likened to using a rowing machine and using the mower to walking on a treadmill.

. As spring rolls around, you don’t want to ruin all your good work by putting your back out and taking a trip to the emergency room. Jenny Hawke is a chartered physiotherapist and Pilates’ teacher at the Lynwood Clinic in Surrey. She says that most injuries can be avoided altogether if people take some time to get fit before they carry out the more demanding gardening tasks.

Before you go out into the garden decide how long you are going to be there - an overlong spell, or too much time spent on one activity, can wreak havoc on your back and other muscles. Decide on a time limit and, within that limit, decide how you are going to divide the work. Says Hawke: “Lots of pruning can trigger a tennis elbow - the mistake people make is to go mad on it and carry on that clipping action with your hands for an hour.”

As Hawke says, the best way is to vary your activities: maybe 10 minutes pruning, then 10 to 15 minutes weeding, then 10 to 15 minutes digging, before going back to the pruning. This way, different parts of your body are given a much-needed rest in turn. In addition to this, varying the tasks this way will make some of the more tedious ones a little easier to bear.

To avoid gardening aches and sprains, start by warming up. Take a quick walk down around the garden a couple of times to warm up. Hawke suggests people with stiff joints rise up and down on their toes 10 times, followed by 10 gentle squats to get muscles ready.

Adapt your tools so that they enable you to keep your back as straight as possible - long handles are always the best way. Extension handles on pruning shears can help you avoid twisting and straining. “When you look at the body as a mechanical piece of engineering, the key to your body strength is around your abdomen. If your deep stomach muscles - and all the tiny muscles going up and down your spine - are not working, the whole of your body can be thrown out,” Hawke explains.

Hawke recommends pulling in your stomach muscles when you dig by pulling your navel back towards your spine. You should then carry out the strenuous part of your task as you breathe out. Gardening can bring long periods of enjoyment and a huge sense of achievement to those who enjoy it. Studies have shown that it reduces stress and can even help to stimulate healing through an increased sense of well-being. However, the advice, as with all things, is not to overdo it. Stick to the time you planned and no more.

Indeed, if you do feel twinges or feel a bit wobbly before then don’t try to work through it - stop. After all, what’s the point in producing a beautiful garden if you never take the time to stop and smell the flowers?

Big Benefits

• Ask a physiotherapist or chiropractor about suitable exercises to do first.

• Plan your gardening schedule in advance.

• Never spend too long on any one task - switch between jobs.

• Warm up before going out.

• Wear appropriate clothing - lots of layers will keep the back warm and wick the sweat away.

• Adapt your tools so that you can keep your back straight.

• Squat down instead of bending over.

• Lift heavy objects with a straight back by bending at the knees. - BUPA

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