Garden-variety gym 

Outdoor chores keep bodies in shape

click to enlarge Pump that trowel; feel the burn. - PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY SALLY PIETTE

Laura Giragosian spends up to four hours a day, four days a week, working in the gardens at her in home in Port Washington, N.Y. The Wall Street retiree spends more than two hours a day, six days a week, working out at a nearby gym.

Giragosian, 42, says she likes to combine her two passions so she can make the most of her time outdoors: "I want to feel like I'm getting something from it for me, as well as my property."

That's easy, fitness experts say. Anyone who has pushed a manual lawn mower or tried to dig a stubborn shrub out of the ground knows that gardening can be hard work.

Studies suggest that you can burn 120 to 200 calories in 30 minutes, depending on the type of chores you do and the intensity at which you do them. There's also evidence that daily gardening can reduce your risk of heart disease, diabetes and osteoporosis. Stopping to smell the roses is a great stress reliever, too.

Take the custom route

There are ways to customize your time out in the dirt. "You can make it more of a workout by focusing on the muscle groups you are using," explains fitness trainer Nancy Popp.

If you want to get the most from your gardening tasks, approach them as you would any exercise routine. First, make a list of gardening chores for the month and schedule the tasks on a calendar, suggests Kim Ruby, a personal trainer in Los Angeles who created a gardening workout that helped one of her clients lose more than 80 pounds.

Combine easy activities with challenging ones on the same day, so your "session" will include weight-bearing exercises like squatting to plant seedlings, as well as cardiovascular activities like digging holes or raking yard clippings. Note which muscle groups each activity uses and mix the tasks accordingly.

Drink plenty of water so you don't get dehydrated, and have something to eat so you'll have enough energy. Wear comfortable, sturdy shoes and knee pads, as well as sunscreen and a hat to protect yourself from the sun.

Giragosian says she starts her gardening with a 10-minute stretch: "It keeps me flexible while I'm working in the garden." You can also warm up your muscles with some easy activities such as sprinkling fertilizer or grass seed, adding compost, or easy weeding.

Follow with some moderate activities, like turning over soil, aerating the yard with aerating sandals or reaching overhead to do some pruning or harvesting of fruit trees. Then, increase the intensity of your work by placing a crate nearby so you can step up and down as you prepare flower or vegetable beds.

Wear a heart monitor to ensure you're working at the right intensity, suggests Jeffrey P. Restuccio, author of Fitness the Dynamic Gardening Way. Physical-fitness tests (available free at heartzone.com) help you calculate your maximum heart rate and training zone, which ensures that you are exercising at the right intensity.

Balance the workout

Exaggerate your movements to extend your range of motion. And balance your workout by switching hands for your chores, Restuccio says. For example, "if you're right-handed, use your left hand. It may be awkward at first, but if you make the effort to change your stance, it'll help balance out the muscles used, and the next day you won't be as sore."

Add weight-bearing exercises, as Giragosian does. She's incorporated squats in her weed-pulling and soil-cultivating to give her thighs a workout. "I used to just get down on my knees," she says.

Turn activities like shoveling mulch into an overall body workout, suggests Popp, by tightening your abdomen, keeping elbows tucked into the body, and pulling down the muscles around your shoulders rather than hunching them up. That will lessen the tension around your neck.

If you're digging holes, Popp says, contract and firm your abdomen and tighten your buttocks to take tension off your lower back. When kneeling for any period of time, remember to sit back and take a stretch now and then.

No matter what you're doing, it's important to alternate your positions every 10 or 15 minutes, says Restuccio. "Think in terms of a Nautilus station."

Avoid injury by using the proper stance. Bend at the knees and keep your back straight when picking up heavy tools. Take special care when lifting heavy plants.

Focus on using your lower body and legs instead of relying on your arms to do all the work, says Restuccio. You might even want to strengthen your lower back with some floor exercises before you do a lot of heavy digging.

Pace it out

To avoid injuries, pace yourself and end your workout with a 10-minute cool-down, including stretching while watering your property, picking vegetables or walking around the neighborhood.

Remember that gardening is intrinsically rewarding, Restuccio says. "It's like power-walking to the gym, and every time you come home, you have fresh tomatoes and peppers for dinner. Even if you're not losing all the weight you want, you'll still have something to show for it."


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