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.
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.