Getting Physical

How to Incorporate Exercise into Your Gardening Routine

By Virginia Hayes

It is said that more people make a resolution to lose weight than any other pledge at the start of the New Year. Most of us who have tried to lose weight and/or get fit know that it really is simple in concept: Eat less and exercise more. In practice, though, we don’t always keep to our resolve. It may help to find ways to get that exercise while also accomplishing other chores. Gardening is an excellent way to do just that. Think of all those regular tasks you need to do in the garden and you’ll see what I mean. Take pulling weeds. Sure you can sit on your overturned bucket to do this one, but how about using it as an opportunity to exercise instead? Stand with your feet slightly apart and reach down for that pesky weed.

Pull it out and straighten up completely as you toss it onto the pile. Vary the routine by standing to one side of the weeds, then reach and twist at the same time. Repeat. Or do a few squats to give thighs and buttocks a workout, instead. A few minutes of weeding with a mind to using as many muscle groups as possible will be just as good as following the shouted directions from an aerobics instructor. Planting seeds or small plants is another candidate for the same bend-and-twist movement.

Does your hedge need trimming? I’m not advocating that you get out the old manual shears unless you really want to build up your biceps and other upper body muscles, although a few hundred repetitions with these can burn some calories for sure. Wielding electric or gas-powered trimmers can provide a pretty good upper body workout, too. Again, the trick is to make your movements larger, reaching farther than you might normally. Please use caution when using sharp tools like hedgers, and if you have back problems, you will know your own limits when lifting them.

Planting larger, container-grown plants or preparing seed beds requires digging. This is one of my favorites. It requires lots of different muscles, from your arms to your legs, and usually includes some nice torso twists as well. Let’s break it down. Grasp the shovel handle between your hands, position the tip on the ground, place your foot firmly on the rolled upper edge of the shovel blade and step up. The blade goes down, but maybe not far enough, so repeat until it goes deep enough. Next, step off and pull back on the upper part of the handle to pry up a clod of dirt. If you are making a hole, lift the shovelful up, and twist at the waist to deposit nearby. If you are just cultivating the soil, lift and then twist only your arms to dump it back in place. Repeat until the hole is large enough or all the area is turned over. Whether cultivating or planting, the clods of dirt you’ve dug may need to be broken up so the soil is more crumbly and porous. Take your shovel and either smack the clods with the back of the blade or chop through them repeatedly until the soil is hospitable to the fine roots of your juvenile plants. At this point, you may also want to incorporate other materials like compost, so keep turning the soil until it is to your liking.

Your body will reward you with increased suppleness, and remember: Every stroke burns a few more calories. If you avail yourself of a roto-tiller, manhandling these beasts is also a calorie-burning exercise, though it will more likely end in strained instead of bulked muscles.

Then, there is the raking and sweeping after you’ve made a big mess getting the garden in shape. Try exaggerating each pull of the rake or broom. Reach farther than usual and follow through beyond your normal stroke. Then pick up the pace a bit. Think of the magical brooms in the movie Fantasia and make a dance out of it. If you’ve got your headphones on and your music turned up, you’ll be even more motivated to end with a flourish. Another tip: While doing all this digging and sweeping and planting, try to alternate the left and right sides of your body to tone both equally.

Embrace your gardening chores not only for the results of luscious fruits and vegetables, charming outdoor living spaces, and a lovely greenscape to grace your homestead, but to help you be physically healthier and happier (maybe even slimmer) in the year(s) to come.

Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to

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