Hands up if you love to exercise for the sake of exercise?
Just me? Ok well as a health and fitness coach I guess it’s only natural that I love getting a good sweat on, lifting heavy weights and feeling my muscles burn. But for most people staying fit, strong and healthy is definitely important to them, but with busy lives, work, children and not to mention the cost of gym memberships – formal exercise is low on the priority list.
However there is another option and it might be closer than you think – your very own back garden! It’s permanently open, it’s free and even the most minimal of gardens needs a little TLC every now and then to stop it from becoming a jungle, so why not kill two birds with one stone and get a good workout in whilst pruning the plants!
The Warmup – Preparation is Key
Like with conventional exercise, the correct clothing is key to staying comfortable. Long trousers and sleeves might be better if you’re going to be kneeling on the ground and to minimise risk of (mostly harmless but sometimes itchy) rashes from touching certain grasses and plants – lightweight in summer as overheating is dangerous and warmer layers that still allow you to move well in winter. Sturdy shoes will prevent slipping or tripping up and good gardening gloves help prevent scratches and blisters from working with garden tools. A hat and suncream in summer goes without saying and keep a bottle of water nearby to stay hydrated – a screw top plastic bottle is better than a regular glass as it won’t break and won’t spill if it falls over while resting on less even surfaces than indoors.
If you’re feeling stiff or aren’t used to being active, a few mobility exercises will get your blood flowing and lubricate your joints. Starting from the bottom and working up is a good way to remember to do each joint. Some good ideas include:
- Ankle rotations – circle your feet 5 times each way, one foot at a time
- Knee swings – standing on one leg and holding onto something for support, lift one foot off the ground so that your knee is bent and swing it gently to the front (like you want to return a football with your knee) and back again, repeat on the other leg
- Hip circles – stand with your feet hip width apart and make a circle with your hips as wide as they will go, 5 times each way.
- Shoulder circles – with your arms by your side, circle your shoulders backwards then forwards, 5 times each way
- Arm circles – swing your arms right over your head and round again, 5 times forwards then 5 times backwards
- Elbow and wrist circles – circle each joint 5 times each way
- Finger wiggles – wriggle your fingers like you’re playing the piano. The fingers aren’t often used in conventional exercise but you’ll most likely use them quite a lot when gardening!
Just pottering about, walking, standing, picking things up; it all burns many more calories than sitting at a desk or watching TV. We personal trainers call it NEAT – Non Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, that is the calories burned when you’re moving but not doing formal exercise.The variety of activities in the garden work all the major muscle groups – legs, arms, core (tummy and spine), buttocks, neck and shoulders; so you get a good full body workout if you put enough effort in. Strong muscles make life easier, support your bones, and muscles themselves burn a lot of calories to stay working, so building muscle is actually a great way to lose weight and body fat if that is your aim.
Other activities that are often done in a gardening session include stretching (to trim high hedges), bending and squatting (to weed and pick things up), lifting (full buckets, wheelbarrows and heavier garden equipment) and digging is akin to many resistance exercises you would do at a gym. Your pulse will speed up to keep up with the increased demand for blood around the body, which gives your heart muscles a bit of a workout and your breathing rate will increase to deliver oxygen to muscles at a faster rate.
As with any type of movement special care should be made to keep your spine straight especially when lifting. Avoid staying in one position for too long and try to vary the activities you do in the garden to avoid over or under using certain muscles and joints. You might well feel a little tired and achy if you’ve not exercised in a while, but pain should not be ignored and should be seen to by a specialist or GP.
The benefits of getting active, including in the garden, are well known and include improved strength and bone density, lowered blood pressure, improved cholesterol levels, increased flexibility and a lower risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes as well as improving mental health conditions like depression.
But did you know that there are additional benefits to exercising (or just being) in ‘green’ areas – the benefits increase significantly compared to doing the same activity indoors!*
Spend a couple of minutes when you’ve finished stretching each muscle and holding for about 20 seconds so you’re less likely to feel stiff the next day. Make sure you have a good drink to replenish any water lost through sweating.
If you’ve been pondering over what to plant in your garden, my absolute best recommendation would be vegetables! Soils in large commercial farms are depleted of nutrients compared to our own gardens, so home grown veggies are both much more nutritious (especially if you grow them organically without pesticides), tastier and of course significantly cheaper than bought produce. Vegetables are in invaluable part of any healthy eating plan, so best of all you get to eat the fruits of your labour!
This article was written by Polly Hale. Polly Hale is a personal trainer, fitness writer, online coach and founder of The Fit Mum Formula, helping women get in shape online from the comfort of their own home.