Community Garden, Canada
Credit: By Klest (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Garden Health and Fitness

Can you get fit and lose weight gardening?

According to a recent article in the UK Telegraph[1], pottering around in an allotment (or community garden) can cut the risk of obesity. The article quotes a  study of 198 community gardeners in Salt Lake City carried out by the University of Utah[2] that compared gardeners' body mass index  (BMI), with their neighbours to find if their gardening lifestyle made them any healthier. The study concluded that on average the gardeners weighed about a stone less than their neighbours. 

I certainly believe that gardening can help you to lose weight and get fit but I think this needs to be put into context.  People need to understand what is involved and that they won't get fit or lose weight dead-heading a few roses now and again. 

The University of Utah study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, showed that on average, female community gardeners had a BMI which was 1.84 lower than their neighbours' and male BMI scores were 2.36 lower on average . That would be an 11lb weight difference for a 5ft 5ins tall woman and a 16lb  weight difference for a 5ft 10in man. 

Female gardeners were 46 per cent less likely to be overweight or obese than their neighbours and male gardeners were 62 per cent less likely to be obese. Gardeners also weighed less than their siblings but weren't lighter than their partners - who presumably enjoyed a similar lifestyle.

Cathleen Zick, lead author of the study and professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah concludes that, "as the percentage of Americans living in urban areas continues to grow, this initial study validates the idea that community gardens are a valuable neighborhood asset that can promote healthier living."[2] This is a belief endorsed by the White House.  First lady Michele Obama's book 'American Grown' is the story of the White House Kitchen garden but includes chapters on community gardens and how they can improve health.

This reinforces my belief that you can get fit and lose weight gardening but I still think that many of the articles on the web that talk about garden health and fitness are slightly missing the point. 

American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America
Amazon Price: $30.00 $14.76 Buy Now
(price as of Jan 2, 2014)
Michele Obama's story of the White House Kitchen Gardens also looks at community gardens across the states and how they can improve health.

Five facts about gardening and weight loss

FIRST FACT: You can lose weight gardening but you have to do a lot of gardening. 

There are a lot of articles on the web that tell you how many calories you can burn gardening. I won't quote too many  figures here because they are out there and they are easy to find but the truth is that they only tell part of the story..

If you really want to know how many calories are burned by different gardening activities there is a chart published by Harvard Health Publications[3] that will show you how many calories are burned for different gardening activities by people of different weights.

For the record a man weighing 185lb will burn around 222 calories in half an hour digging. Planting seeds he would burn 178 calories per half hour and gardening in general he will burn around 200 calories per half hour. This compares, for a man of the same weight, to 444 calories per half hour running at a slow 10 min mile pace or 355 calories per half hour riding a bicycle at 12-14mph. 

 So we are not talking about vigorous activity that will turn you into a competitive athlete but we are talking about moderate cardio vascular activity that will contribute to your overall calorie consumption and help to keep you fit and healthy. My article the NEAT way to lose weight without exercising demonstrates that levels of day to day activity can be as important in losing or maintaining weight as occasional more vigorous exercise. So the first fact is that you can lose weight gardening but you need to do a lot of it.

SECOND FACT: To get fit gardening you need a decent sized plot like an allotment or a community garden to work on.

Any activity is better for you and will burn more calories than sitting around doing nothing but these things are relative. To burn a significant number of calories you will need a decent sized plot to work on. It is notable that the University of Utah study was based on community gardens. To make a real difference you need a garden that involves a lot of work like an allotment or a community garden

A survey carried out in the UK by the National Society for Allotment & Leisure Gardeners (NSALG)[4] showed that allotment gardeners spend an average of 203 hours a year working on their That's an average of four hours a week but many gardeners spend more time than this and if you are serious about losing weight gardening you probably need to be one of them. There is a high drop out rate and many new allotment holders give up within a year because they underestimate  how much work is involved. To get all the health benefits of gardening you need a decent sized plot and that is hard work and a big commitment.



THIRD FACT - You can't plan your gardening sessions like you would a trip to the gym. You have to do what needs doing.

The fact is; and this is what many of the articles seem to miss, is that your garden is not a gym it's a living, changing environment. You can't go in with a planned list of activities that will contribute to your weight loss. You have to do what needs doing at the time and that will be seasonal. In the autumn and winter, weather permitting you will need to do a lot of soil preparation which will involve heavy digging and shifting compost or manure. In the spring you will be planting and beginning to water. In the summer it will be watering, picking and weeding. 

You'll be working at different levels of intensity and exercising different muscles at different times of the year. The good news is that gardening involves a range of different activities that will help to build and keep up overall fitness. It's Crossfit without the intensity if you like to think of it that way.

You will be working all the major muscle groups: legs, buttocks, arms, shoulders, neck, back and abdomen. You will be stretching to get weeds or pick fruit, bending to plant or weed, hoisting bags of compost around, doing lots of digging or shoveling, pushing  heavy wheelbarrows around and carrying watering cans back and forward. And, better still, you will be doing this without the jarring effects you get from an exercise like jogging. You will get plenty of variety but what you won't get is a regular routine.

FOURTH FACT - If you want to burn plenty of calories - you need to do things the old fashioned hard work way.

So the kind of work out you will get from your garden is dictated by by things like what you are growing, how big your site is and what needs doing but when all that is said and done there is something you can do to influence the number of calories you will burn. There are many labour (sorry that's how we spell it where I come from!) devices on the market that will save you work but they will also mean you are going to burn less calories. Use a rotivator if you must; but not only will they mash up the perennial weeds and scatter them over your plot, which is bad gardening in my view, you will get less exercise. The same applies to a power mower or, worse still a ride on mower. If you are there to burn calories and lose weight you cant beat digging with an old fashioned spade or fork or mowing (if you must have grass) with a hand mower. There's nothing in my view like getting down and dirty with the land. You need to dig your land by hand before you can really feel you 'own' it and it's definitely the best way to get rid of weeds. The best way to burn calories gardening is to do things the hard way.

Garden Your Way to Health and Fitness
Amazon Price: $19.95 $3.89 Buy Now
(price as of Jan 2, 2014)
Garden designer Bunny Guinness and physiotherapist Jacqueline Knox explain how happy hours spent weeding, raking, digging can help you to lose weight and get fit and how you can get all the health benefits of gardening without hurting yourself.

FIFTH FACT - To get all the health benefits of gardening it has to be more than a hobby. It has to be a lifestyle.

I read one article that said you have to stop thinking of your garden a set of chores and regard it as exercise. That is right up to a point but misses the full truth. The fact is it has to be a labour of love but more than that it has to be a lifestyle. To get all the health benefits of gardening you need to grow your own food because growing your own food with give you a whole new attitude to food, the natural environment and the way you lead your life. You won't just exercise more you will eat better too and you will learn to relate to food in an entirely different way.

Nothing tastes quite like food fresh from the ground but when it is ground you have meticously prepared yourself and plants you have nurtured and cared for it tastes better still. You will learn to value and enjoy health giving fruit and vegetable like you have never enjoyed them before. I love meat and never thought I would say this but I have come to look at meat or fish as an accompaniment to the vegetables we are eating.

But a further word of warning and part of the 'lifestyle' argument; there is no such thing as fast food when you grow your own food. I mean this in two ways. Firstly if you grow things in the quantity we do you will think twice about going out to eat because you have so much you have worked to grow and that you will not want to waste. But secondly all those vegetables have to be prepared from scratch. To the hours you have spent in the garden you have to add the hours you will spend in the kitchen. It will be worth it because you will eat well and you will eat healthily - and you will be on your feet more burning yet more calories but you can't dabble with gardening if you want to enjoy all the health benefits. It has to be a life-style changer.

The physical, nutritional and health benefits of gardening.

For another perspective on how to lose weight gardening read Sooky's article, 'How to Lose Weight Gardening' here on Infobarrel.