The gar­den workout: the ben­e­fits of back­yard exercise

It’s one of the best forms of exercise in your own back­yard. Pro­fes­sor Ker­ryn Phelps looks at the health ben­e­fits of gar­den­ing – and a few things to watch out for.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

Gar­den­ing can be more than a chore or hobby – it has loads of health ben­e­fits.

Spring is around the cor­ner, and for many of us that means break­ing out the gar­den­ing tools, find­ing those gloves and head­ing out­doors. Yet gar­den­ing can be more than a chore or a hobby – it has loads of health ben­e­fits, both emo­tion­ally and phys­i­cally. There are also some words of cau­tion about safety here, so that you can make the most of the pos­i­tive as­pects of gar­den­ing.


Exercise: The most ob­vi­ous ben­e­fit of gar­den­ing is exercise. All the lift­ing, haul­ing, shov­el­ling, bend­ing and stretch­ing can ri­val a gym workout for to­tal body exercise.

Vi­ta­min D: Your body pro­duces vi­ta­min D when your skin is ex­posed to sun­light. With­out ad­e­quate vi­ta­min D, your im­mune sys­tem suf­fers. You need vi­ta­min D to main­tain strong bones and mus­cles. Low vi­ta­min D lev­els are as­so­ci­ated with other dis­eases such as Type 2 di­a­betes, heart dis­ease, mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis and some forms of cancer. Spend­ing time out­doors with some of your skin ex­posed to sun­light (with­out sun­burn) en­cour­ages the pro­duc­tion of vi­ta­min D.

Mind­ful­ness: An hour or two in the gar­den will en­rich all of your senses – the sight of new buds on the trees, the sound of birds, your sense of touch as you han­dle plants or pull weeds, the smell of a new rose, the taste of fresh fruit or home-grown veg­eta­bles. Gar­den­ing re­quires you to take no­tice of your en­vi­ron­ment, to ob­serve the weather, pat­terns and colours, and the cy­cle of life. This is an exercise in mind­ful­ness, of be­ing present in the mo­ment. There is abun­dant ev­i­dence of the pos­i­tive well­ness ben­e­fits of mind­ful­ness prac­tice. Gar­den­ing is also an exercise in pa­tience – as any gar­dener will tell you. Once you’ve pre­pared the ground and planted the seeds or bulbs, you have to wait pa­tiently to see the re­sult when the time and con­di­tions are right.

Con­nect­ed­ness: If you live in an apart­ment with­out much out­door space, then you might get your gar­den­ing fix at the home of a friend or rel­a­tive. The com­mu­nity gar­den is an­other con­cept which not only en­cour­ages peo­ple to pro­duce their own fresh plant foods, it also helps to con­nect neigh­bours and en­cour­ages a sense of com­mu­nity spirit. I re­cently read about the Ur­ban Street Food pro­ject in the ur­ban Sun­shine Coast sub­urb of Buderim, Aus­tralia’s first integrated, ed­i­ble streetscape. It grew from one street in 2009 and now in­volves a dozen or so lined with sea­sonal fruits, veg­eta­bles, herbs and spices, and en­cour­ages grow­ing, sourc­ing and eat­ing fresh food in the pub­lic space.


Any phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity brings po­ten­tial risks, but by an­tic­i­pat­ing these risks, you can take pre­ven­tive ac­tion.

Back in­juries: Gar­den­ing can in­volve the lift­ing and car­ry­ing of pots and heavy bags of soil, as well as push­ing a wheel­bar­row. Make sure you use cor­rect lift­ing tech­niques, keep­ing

your back straight and bend­ing at the knees. Ask for help if the load is too heavy for you to man­age alone.

Thorns: Many plants have sharp thorns. Even if you think you’re just go­ing to trim a few leaves from a thorny plant, take the time to put on your gloves to avoid be­ing pricked.

Tetanus: Tetanus is trans­mit­ted by the bac­terium Clostrid­ium tetani found in soil ev­ery­where. It can enter your blood­stream through ap­par­ently triv­ial wounds, like the ones you might get while gar­den­ing. With childhood im­mu­ni­sa­tion pro­grams, most peo­ple will have had some

pro­tec­tion from tetanus. In New Zealand, tetanus is rare, but it does oc­cur, pri­mar­ily in older adults who have never been vac­ci­nated or who were vac­ci­nated in the re­mote past. Check your tetanus im­mu­ni­sa­tion sta­tus with your doc­tor and have a booster if you need one.

First aid kit: Even if you take all pre­cau­tions, it is in­evitable that you will have the oc­ca­sional need for a first aid kit. Keep yours well-stocked – in a handy place – with an­ti­sep­tic cream, dress­ings and ban­dages.

Pot­ting mix: This can con­tain Le­gionella bac­te­ria which cause le­gion­naire’s dis­ease, a some­times fa­tal form of pneu­mo­nia. If you are han­dling pot­ting mix, wear a mask and gloves. Keep your hands away from your mouth. Open the bag care­fully, then wet the contents to pre­vent in­hal­ing any dust. Wash your hands after us­ing pot­ting mix.

Bites and stings: Re­mem­ber, you share the gar­den with crea­tures that can bite and sting. Be aware of po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous in­sects and spi­ders. Cover ex­posed skin, wear pro­tec­tive gloves and boots, and avoid us­ing cos­metic prod­ucts with a strong per­fume. Ar­range to have wasp nests pro­fes­sion­ally re­moved. Get rid of po­ten­tial snake habi­tats. If you are bit­ten, ap­ply first aid and seek ur­gent med­i­cal at­ten­tion.

Sun­burn: Time passes quickly when gar­den­ing and you need to think about sun­burn pro­tec­tion before you ven­ture out­side. Re­mem­ber to use the usual pre­cau­tions – sun­screen, hat, shirt and sun­glasses.

Toxic chem­i­cals: Many of the chem­i­cals used in gar­den­ing, such as pes­ti­cides and weed­killers, are toxic to hu­mans and an­i­mals. Con­duct an au­dit of the chem­i­cals you’re stor­ing or us­ing. Then dis­card them. Ex­plore or­ganic chem­i­cal­free gar­den­ing meth­ods.

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