A Gardener's Manifesto for Movement
When I started volunteering at a Permaculture Garden, my co-worker and I had a conversation on the effects of gardening on mental as well as physical health. Working in the garden full-time, he spends all day outside, weeding, planting, building, harvesting,... the list goes on. And returns home feeling peaceful, but also more than tired. I experience this feeling every time I return home from volunteering: yes, the good kind of tired, physically exhausted, because let's be honest: gardening is hard work for our bodies.
Talking about this, I took a mental note to write a blog on our thoughts combined with the latest research. The result is this: a gardener's manifesto for movement. I'd say skip the gym and go outside! Gardening is a rewarding activity with healing effects for the mind. Apart from reconnecting with nature and a new feeling of being grounded, gardening offers an incredible opportunity to move and exercise. Explore the many effects of gardening with me and get some practical recommendations on how to make your gardening “workout” most effective.
The Benefits of Gardening
Gardening is such a healthy habit! A meta-analysis on the effects of gardening on human health summarizing results from literature and 22 case studies carried out in the United States, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East suggests that gardening reduces depression and anxiety, anger and fatigue. At the same time, the outdoor activity increases cognitive function as well as life satisfaction. Simultaneously, the health of those suffering from diabetes and circulatory and heart diseases improved. And the best about these findings might be: according to the research, even a short gardening session can have immediate effects (M. Sogaa, K. J. Gastonb, Y. Yamaura, 2017)!
It does not come as a surprise that gardening activities are by now included in trauma therapy. In London, the NHS foundation works with Roots and Shoots to offer grounding gardening courses to those suffering from deep trauma, like refugees (S. Johnson, 2017).
But gardening is not just for those that find themselves in their healing process. Even looking at a green scenery has soothing effects on the nervous system and decreases blood pressure. When we talk about home, we relate to a house we live in. We may forget that we, too, came from Earth and are home in the lush green, among the flowers, by the seaside or climbing mountains. Outdoor activities, gardening being one of them, are holistic preventive medicine in action.
As a physical exercise, gardening activities like digging or turning compost use the upper and lower body, while weeding, mixing soil, transplanting seedlings etc. are mainly exercises for the upper body in standing position (Park et al., 2008). Movement in the garden translates to exercises that engage multiple groups of muscles. We twist and turn and lift. Using several muscle groups at the same time enhances weight loss and is an integrative movement that can strengthen the core. It's also a main reason for increased weight loss seen through "functional training". The effective way of training and current trend on the fitness horizon was developed to offer sequences of exercises that prepare the body for daily activities, instead of just creating that good looking biceps. These exercises were literally created observing how we move, when we do, what we do to support us when we move. Now, coming back to the conversation that my co-worker and I had, how about working (out) somewhere in the garden, instead of spending money on a gym? When outside, you can integrate functional training exercises like squads or reverse lunges - because basically, that's what you do anyways.
The easiest way is to set up your own little garden - that is, if you have outdoor space available at home. If all you got is a balcony, I would still say: plant some! But to really get moving, I suggest: look for an organic, permaculture, or community garden or a close-by urban farm / farm and volunteer once or twice per week. Or, help a neighbor. Maybe you know some elderly neighbors that can use a hand in maintaining their garden? Gardening is a very special way to boost community connection, after all.
If you start planting your own garden, begin with local resilient plants that are rather low-maintenance - easy for beginners. As this varies from location to location and even from micro-climate to micro-climate, check out gardener stores in your area (or of course, do some online research) and ask about tips. From my own experience, it's the most important thing to just get going and actually plant, get your hands dirty. Don't make big plans that in the end are overwhelming. Accept that there will always be something to be done and drop the expectation that everything has to be perfect. A garden is and will always be a wild thing, no matter how much you try to tame it. For those that would like to learn more about gardening theories, I also love the concepts of Permaculture in all its bits and pieces. You can find online courses for free (or for a fee, depending on the level of knowledge provided), as well as books on the topic.
Speaking of movement, do pay attention to your posture, if you're really new to gardening. You can find so many tutorials online on functional training exercises. Practice at home and apply that to your squads outside. To prevent injuries and maximize the physical effects of gardening, alternate tasks and try a variation of positions. Including some yoga postures and stretches is a good idea, too. Use your arms to carry and carry things in various ways. Remind yourself of bending from your hips and switch your hands when using tools. This might feel less effective, but in exercise terms, that keeps the workout even (Katy Bowman, 2017).
If you still want to keep up your gym habit and integrating gardening speaks to you, ask your fitness instructor for guidance. Finally, be mindful when you carry heavy bags of soil. Take care of yourself like you would of the seedlings you plant. Don't take yourself (or it) too seriously and just enjoy being connected with Earth. That is self-care.
Katy Bowman, Cross-Training in the Garden: A Lesson From Alignment to Zucchini, https://experiencelife.com/article/cross-training-in-the-garden/ 2017
Sarah Johnson, 'Without this, I would have killed myself': gardening helps heal refugees' trauma, https://www.theguardian.com/healthcare-network/2017/jun/28/nhs-therapeutic-gardening-help-refugees-trauma , 2017
Park et. al., Can Older Gardeners Meet the Physical Activity Recommendation through Gardening?, HortTechnology, 2008 vol. 18 no. 4, the American Society for Horticultural Science, 2008
Masashi Soga a, Kevin J. Gaston b , Yuichi Yamaura, Gardening is beneﬁcial for health: A meta-analysis, Preventive Medicine Reports, Vol. 5, P.92-99, Elsevier, 2017