Originally published June 11, 2000
By Valerie Easton, former Plant Life writer
I USED TO EXERCISE to stay a certain size (or in an attempt to reach a certain size) and as a social activity. That kept me running around Green Lake when I was younger, and paying for a gym membership. My current exercise program is more focused — I exercise so that I am able to garden.
I long for the time when I could go outside first thing in the morning and garden all day long. Now I put in a few hours of digging, transplanting and pulling weeds, and I am beat. My iced tea breaks grow longer. I just have to rest. And nothing drives me more crazy than the inability to dig out a plant, when even jumping up and down on the shovel won’t drive it deep enough. This might sound like a call for soil amendments (true), but it is also lack of strength.
Although I resent anything that takes me away from the garden, I do yoga every day and take a weekly yoga class for strength and flexibility. Yogis say you are only as young as your spine, and nowhere is this more important than out in the garden, with all the lifting and stooping. I’ve practiced yoga for more than 20 years and credit it with the fact I’ve never been injured. I also warm up for gardening by walking the dog up hills — warm muscles are resilient muscles.
For endurance and for fun, I try to attend an exercise dance class twice a week. Great music and free movement always shake up brain cells — many of my best ideas for the garden come while walking or dancing, rather than while in the garden itself, when I get too focused to be creative.
None of this, however, can match my friend Robyn, who rows with a team of women ages 28 to 65 early in the morning for an hour and a half three times a week. She says this keeps her hands and wrists, and all the rest of her, strong for gardening. We had dinner last week, and she spoke cheerfully about her plans for the next morning — to dig a long ditch in heavy clay soil.
It turns out that gardening is now being touted as great exercise in and of itself. A University of Arkansas researcher found that women over 50 who gardened at least once a week showed higher bone-density readings than those who engaged in jogging, swimming, walking or aerobics. That makes perfect sense — weight-bearing activities build strong bones, and in gardening, we are carrying around soil, tools and plants.
Gardening is now seen as an effective way to prevent osteoporosis, which threatens more than 28 million people. An additional benefit of gardening is exposure to the sun, which boosts vitamin D production, which aids the body in calcium absorption, which in turn strengthens bones.
I got a kick out of a study by Melicia Whitt at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, which concluded that gardening could be as tough a workout as kayaking or weightlifting. She sounded surprised — she must not spend too much time double digging or spreading manure.
What the studies miss is that gardeners are out there working for the sheer joy of it. What could be healthier? Gardening is transporting, one of those few activities in which we can lose ourselves while being fully engaged physically and mentally. How often have you looked up from a freshly weeded patch and been amazed at how much time had passed in happy, zoned-out activity?
Most important, gardening provides its own motivation — those plants are calling to us; there is work to be done — so people keep on gardening their whole lives. Which is why I keep exercising.