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Gardening for the Health of It

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked what I do to keep myself so young. Having been mistaken for someone younger the better part of my life, I always use my old standby line: “It’s my Oil of O’Filomeo.” In part, that’s true. I was blessed with oily skin and good genes; both of my grandmothers lived well into their 90s and I plan on doing the same.

However, one cannot rely solely on family and good fortune for longevity. There is, of course, much more to it than that. Diet, exercise and general maintenance play huge parts in keeping oneself fit and vigorous; I actually addressed the diet aspect in the October Women’s Health issue, so if you’re interested, grab a copy and enjoy my satiric take on eating “healthy.” But before you ask which gym I belong to or which yoga studio I frequent, let me just say that my fitness routine requires only time, patience and dedication. Of course, garden tools, seeds, plants and adequate space, notwithstanding, my routine is much cheaper and more accessible than the gym or yoga studio. And I don’t even have to leave home. 

My gym and yoga studio are the great outdoors, where I am surrounded by sunshine, fresh air, plants and flowers. While some people complain about dragging themselves to the gym, I think how blessed I am that I can just step out my door and get into my groove. I know that when I am digging those holes to plant my cherry trees, I am burning off the calories that I stuffed myself with the day before. Raking those leaves and pushing my lawnmower around the yard are a serious form of aerobic exercise, getting my heart rate up and making me sweat off impurities. Stretching and reaching for that last weed and twisting and bending as I plant my flowers work new muscles in my body and help with strength, stamina and flexibility. I am confident that the sunshine that slips beneath my sunscreen is providing me with adequate amounts of Vitamin D necessary for increasing calcium levels, benefiting my bones and immune system. 

Whether it’s planting, pruning, picking, weeding, watering or mowing, there’s always something to do in the garden that will bring physical activity to my day. But there is much more to gardening for health than just getting physical. Gardening exercises your mind as well as your body. It utilizes a number of our brain functions and includes problem solving and sensory awareness, keeping our minds active. A number of studies have shown the benefits of therapeutic gardens for patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Just a few plants on a balcony or even a window sill have proven to help with depression, anxiety and loneliness.

Playing in the dirt has been proven to help with mood changes and maintaining mental health. Scientists are investigating the friendly bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, antidepressant microbes in soil, for improving cognitive function, Crohn’s disease and even rheumatoid arthritis. Tending a garden allows your creative side to shine through, leaving you with a sense of accomplishment and pride. The garden is filled with all sorts of sights, sounds, textures, scents and tastes. These stimulated senses can easily relieve and reduce unwanted stress associated with everyday life. 

Being on my knees, pulling weeds, has been the saving grace of many a rough day, and my gardens are the lovelier for it. I feel best at the end of the day when my feet are sore and my bones are aching from wielding my hoe and making rows with my shovel. My 85-year-old mom, who has been an avid gardener her entire life, recently had a knee replacement. Despite the pain of healing, her biggest challenge was not being able to go out into her garden every day. Before the surgery, she would wake up in the morning and plan her day around her gardening activities, but post-surgery she felt frustrated and anxious. As soon as she was physically able, she would toddle out her back door on her walker, revel in the serotonin-rich sunshine and go to work. At the end of the day, she is satisfied that her aches and pains are more from her gardening exertions than from the surgery.

Now, I’m not saying that gardening is for everyone, or that the gym is unnecessary, only that I consider myself blessed that I have the resources and inclination to make it a healthy part of my life. There is nothing better than a good physical workout, whether it is at the gym, jogging around the block, or working in the yard or garden. But wouldn’t it be satisfying to look out your window and see something you’ve created and nurtured on a daily basis? Who knows, with the New Year right around the corner, it could be a great resolution to get gardening for the health of it.

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Thirty minutes of these activities will help burn off those indulgences:

Watering lawn or garden, 61 calories
Mowing lawn (riding), 101
Trimming shrubs (power), 142
Raking, 162
Bagging leaves, 162
Planting seedlings, 162
Mowing (push with motor), 182
Planting trees, 182
Trimming shrubs (manual), 182
Weeding, 182
Clearing land, 202
Digging, spading, tilling, 202
Laying sod, 202
General gardening, 202

Mowing lawn (push mower), 243