Magazine article The Saturday Evening Post

Gardening for Fitness of Body and Soul

Magazine article The Saturday Evening Post

Gardening for Fitness of Body and Soul

Article excerpt

Planting, digging, mowing, and other "growing" activities can provide a great workout for all ages.

Leslie Fredrickson can't abide formal exercise programs.

"They're a bore," says the 72-year-old retired Agriculture Department program manager. "I used to do a half-hour exercise routine of push-ups and sit-ups and the like at home, but it got to be so darn boring that I quit. And it's too much of a pain in the neck to drive to some gym."

Instead, Fredrickson keeps himself in top shape by spending several hours a day gardening at his Germantown, Maryland, home. "Planting, weeding, splitting wood and all that is excellent fitness work," says Fredrickson, who's been gardening since he was "a wee tad" in Oregon. "I just dug a two-foot hole and planted a weeping cherry, and that's the kind of thing that keeps me fit."

In addition to the physical benefits, he says, "I get beautiful flowers, lots of vegetables, and my place looks nice. I know gardening's good for me, I enjoy doing it, and it's never boring. So I win on all counts."

Fredrickson is among a growing number of Americans--many of them over 50--who have discovered the physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of gardening. At a time when public health officials are touting the advantages of regular moderate exercise, gardening is gaining recognition as a healthy lifestyle activity that can provide significant benefits to people of all ages. The U.S. Surgeon General's 1996 Report on Physical Activity and Health concluded that accumulating 30 minutes a day of moderate activity, such as gardening, can reduce risk for numerous chronic conditions--including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and colon cancer--and aid in weight maintenance and overall physical functioning.

Depending on the activity, gardening can be as tough a workout as sports such as kayaking or weightlifting, says Melicia Whitt, an epidemiologist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. Whitt recently helped compile a comprehensive list of the metabolic equivalents--or METs--of more than 500 physical activities. (A single MET is the amount of energy a person expends at rest, while a 2-MET activity uses twice that much energy.)

"Any activity that is 3 to 6 METs is considered moderate intensity and will confer health benefits," she says. Gardening tasks such as digging, composting, raking, and planting are 4- to 5-MET activities, making them equivalent to sports such as table tennis, volleyball, and skateboarding. Tougher gardening workouts include mowing the lawn with a push mower and chopping wood. At 6 METs, these activities are on a par with hiking, downhill skiing, and wrestling.

More than muscles get a workout in the garden, say proponents who point to the psychological boost conferred by accomplishing a task and literally taking time to smell the roses. In a complex, technological world, where many people sit in front of a computer all day, gardening offers the simplicity of soil, seeds, and seasonal cycles--a reconnection with nature that also can nourish the spirit.

"A special relationship occurs when people nurture plants, which makes gardening a very therapeutic activity," says Lana Dreyfuss, president of the Chesapeake Chapter of the American Horticulture Therapy Association. "Enjoying the outdoors, getting your fingers dirty, and seeing the rewards of something beautiful you've tended can be very stress-reducing in our hectic lives."

Many older adults use gardening as their primary physical activity, says Dreyfuss, who works with seniors in adult day-care facilities in Silver Spring, Maryland. "It's a wonderful activity for people of all abilities because you can go at your own pace," she says, "and do as much or as little as you're able."

But just as gardens evolve over the years and require adjustment, "gardeners, too, must adapt to changes wrought over time," writes Rita Pelczar in a recent issue of The American Gardener magazine. …

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