Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
Gardening is a great form of exercise. The amount of calories you burn depends on the type and intensity of the activity. Moderate gardening may burn 300 calories an hour. This is similar to a moderate walk or a game of golf. But like any exercise, if done improperly, it may cause problems for your body.
As with jogging, tennis, or any exercise, do some warm-ups before getting started. This may include walking around the block to get the circulation going, gentle head rolls from side to side, side bends, forward lunges, and squatting. Depending on what you will be doing in the garden, you may use, and so need to loosen up, the biceps (front of upper arm), triceps (back of upper arm), deltoids (shoulder muscles), trapezius (upper and middle back), and latissimus dorsi (upper back).
When you begin, do some easier chores first like light hoeing before more strenuous activity, such as heavy digging. Above all, don't do heavy lifting with your back. This is the major cause of back problems. Bend down using your leg muscles instead. Strong abdominal muscles will help your lower back.
If you'll be doing some heavy lifting and digging, you may wish to warm up with some sit-ups. You may do partial sit-ups called trunk flexion. Lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on ground. With hands behind your neck, curl your head and chest forward, raising only your shoulder blades. Hold for a few seconds, then release and rest, then repeat a few more times.
If you'll be working on the ground for long periods, such as weeding and planting, don't do it bending over. This will put too much stress on your back. Instead squat or kneel down. I often kneel on one knee, frequently rotating between knees. You may find a kneeling cushion or knee pads helpful. Kneeling pads with side bars or handles make it easier to get up. Turn this pad over and it can then serve as a stool.
Listen to your body as you garden. If you start feeling aches or fatigue in certain muscles, it's time to rest and do some exercises. Even a few simple, slow backbends can help the lower back, for instance, if you've been standing. If you are on your hands and knees, stay there. Do a trunk extension by lifting the left arm and right leg out straight, keeping your back straight. Hold this a few seconds, then do the other leg and arm.
Use tools that are ergonometrically designed, if available, to lessen body stress. An example is a lawn rake with a somewhat Z-shaped handle. Or tools with easy-to-grasp handles with wide cushions to grip will help avoid wrist problems like carpel tunnel syndrome. If using long-handled tools, make sure they are the right length, especially if you are tall. Using a tool with too short of a handle may cause you to slightly bend your back, which over time can cause aches.
Of course wearing comfortable clothing is obvious, including appropriate footwear. Standing for long periods causes stress on the back, so shoes such as those for running that have air cushioning may be helpful. Sunscreen and hats are needed on sunny days for long term skin health. Rubbing lotion on hands and skin after gardening also helps. I have found that lotions are especially beneficial after handling a material such as peat moss that is rough on the hands.
Proper gardening can provide even more exercise when following aerobic guidelines. Just keep in mind the "20-30" rule. Start slowly and gently, building up the intensity as you go. Work with about 20 to 30 repetitions of an activity, such as hoeing or raking, before resting about 20 to 30 seconds. Then repeat. Alternating activities frequently, maybe every 20 to 30 minutes, using different muscles and motions, is one of the keys to avoiding stress and repetitive motion induced injuries. So weed a while, rest, dig or edge a bit, do some pruning, then go back to weeding.
When finished, as with any exercise, you need to "warm down."
It takes five to 10 minutes for the body and muscles on average to go back
to a resting state. So a good way to end your gardening activity
is to take a short walk around the garden admiring all your efforts, stopping
to see and smell the flowers!