Is Gardening Good Exercise?

Move with intention through your garden routine to stretch and strengthen long-forgotten muscles.

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by Getty Images/bluecinema
Switch gardening positions often to balance the workload on your different muscle groups.

Is gardening good exercise? Yes! Try barefoot gardening and dynamic stretches to strengthen long-forgotten muscles while moving with intention through your garden routine.

Bodybuilder Sam Sycamore fell head over heels for farming after suffering a biking accident that left him unable to continue his intense gym regime. Weakness in his elbow led to chronic pain in his shoulder, and before long, he realized he couldn’t quite sustain his intense routine of biking, swimming, and weightlifting that had comprised his exercise routine for years. “My injuries forced me to confront difficult decisions about how and why I use my body,” he says.

Farming had once been something he’d thought he’d pursue in the distant future, but as he considered his health, his plans shifted. He decided to lease a 1/4-acre garden and a couple of acres of pasture to start up a small-scale, specialty-crop operation outside of Louisville, Kentucky. Sycamore discovered that doing chores around the farm traded repetitive gym exercises for a more complex and useful set of movements. In essence, he could move his body in more healthful ways than he ever did as a bodybuilder.

We know about the dietary and financial benefits offered by fresh, organically grown produce from our own fields and backyards, but when we begin to think of and use the garden as our own personal gym, those benefits multiply.

Is Gardening Good Exercise?

Introducing dynamic, whole-body movements through work in your garden is a concept that Katy Bowman, biomechanist and author of the book Movement Matters, calls “movement permaculture.” Bowman calls typical gym movements, which focus on select muscle groupings and are typically detached from the natural world, “junk food movements.” In the long term, these junk food movements aren’t good for our bodies. “To practice movement permaculture is to move in such a way that you can keep moving — often moving with a higher range and quality — for the rest of your life,” she says.

When Sycamore began living closer to the land and thinking about the sustainability of the food he grew and foraged, he realized that the movements that came along with those activities were more sustainable for his body too. Instead of doing repetitive squats at the gym, farming encouraged dynamic movements that used his whole body.

“Working with plants and soil, I’m constantly moving in and out of a deep squat,” he says. “It’s a body weight squat, and because I don’t have the burden of an extra load weighing me down, I can fully complete that movement. I can do things like crab walk and engage the entire range of motion that the hips are capable of.”

Junk food movements aren’t just relegated to the gym. Many modern farming technologies — from mechanized equipment to simple backyard garden tools — take away opportunities to engage our bodies to the fullest extent, and these movement monocultures can take a toll on our bodies.

“Tools reduce movement diversity and change the distribution of movement over the body. They increase repetitive movements on our muscles, creating under- and overuse depending on the tools used,” Bowman says.

Simply rethinking your approach to gardening will introduce what Bowman calls “movement nutrients.” Her recommendations include:

  • Using different tools for one task.
  • Working at different times of day, allowing your body to adapt to fluctuations in light and temperature.
  • Gardening barefoot.
  • Working alongside a young or novice gardener.

Ditch the ‘Junk Food Movements’

When faced with questions about body movement, Sycamore turned to Jonathan Mead, founder of Uncaged Human and co-creator of Embodied Strength. Both programs help people use their bodies in ways that reduce pain and prevent injury. Mead offers the following tips for gardeners who want to move away from movement monoculture.

Switch positions often. Gardeners often hunch over or work in positions that use the same muscle groups repeatedly. This is a recipe for pain. “My mantra is, ‘The next position is the best position,’ ” Mead says. He recommends that gardeners move into a new position every 2 to 3 minutes.

For example, when weeding or planting, start in a squat or modified squat with one or both heels raised. As you work, shift your weight back and forth between your left foot and right foot. Later, move into a lunge, using an arm for support. Before your muscles become weakened or tired, switch knees. After that, you can transition to your hands and knees. Consider using your less dominant hand.

“You’re giving your body a little more variety, and that’s going to lead to longevity over time, which means you’ll be able to garden longer,” Mead says.

Tap into your central power. Mead often observes gardeners using smaller muscle groups — their arms, for example — when hoeing and harvesting. This leads to muscle burnout. He recommends employing larger muscle groups, such as the torso and hips, to tap into the energy and ability to keep moving over much longer periods. When weeding or harvesting, pull from your torso while your arm acts as a lever. For hoeing, keep your feet planted on the ground and move from your hips. “If you’re hunched over and using your arms, you aren’t using your largest muscles,” he says. “If you’re able to use rotation in your hips, it’ll create a lot more leverage.”

Stack your joints. When digging into the soil to plant transplants or yank out weeds, most gardeners only use their arms. This can quickly fatigue muscles and leave gardeners prone to injury from repetitive motions. However, using your own weight when working takes the pressure off these overused muscles. “If you get your weight over the tool, it’ll create a lot more leverage,” Mead says. “Think about your shoulder being over your wrist — use gravity to your advantage.”

Keep loads close. Gardening season inevitably means lifting and carrying heavy loads. Mead advises holding loads close to the body to prevent stress on muscles and connective tissues. When lifting, hinge from your hips, keeping your spine straight.

“I tell people to reach out with their tailbone,” he says. “Bending the knees gets you closer to the ground while keeping your spine in line.”

Stretch it out. Finally, end every gardening session with a period of stretching, paying particular attention to opening up your hips and encouraging flexibility in your back. Instead of doing static stretches, Mead recommends “stretching like a rainbow.” He says, “Move in a 360-degree range of motion so you can find the area that needs to be opened up the most, and then hang out there.”

Body Language

Try the following dynamic stretches to release tension in multiple parts of the body:

From a lunge position, reach backward with the arm on the side of the leg that’s lunging forward, creating a twist in the torso and a stretch through the hips. Circle your arms to introduce shoulder mobility at the same time.

Do the yoga stretch known as Downward-Facing Dog. Invert your body into a V-shape, with your hands and feet on the ground and hips in the air. Be careful to keep your spine straight. This will increase flexibility in your hips and shoulders while relieving tension in the spine.

Keeping your back flat, bend at the hips and push your arms out above your head and against a wall, creating a tabletop effect. Open your chest to get movement through your thoracic spine, while also getting a stretch in your lower back and hamstrings.

On your hands and knees, with your shoulders over your wrists and your hips over your knees, flex and arch your back in an alternating Cat-Cow pose. Think about articulating each vertebra individually, starting at the sacrum.

Get in the Garden

Depending on your goals for your garden, the size and terrain of your land, and the resources you have available to you, your gardening activities — and therefore, the resulting movement — can vary drastically. However, paying attention to your body and moving with intention through your garden space can have a positive impact on your health, allowing you to garden into advanced adulthood, and even freeing up time and finances previously spent at the gym.

Sycamore is constantly implementing these techniques to change up his movement in the garden. He says that even though he might not get the work done as efficiently, he feels better at the end of the day. “The other day, I needed to plant beans, but I’d been squatting all day pulling weeds,” he says. “I was feeling stiff and tight after being hunched over, so instead of crouching over to plant the beans, I straddled the bed in a warrior pose, moving my hips back and forth. It took me a little bit longer, but I didn’t need to stretch out my knees and hips at the end of the day, because I’d already incorporated my stretch into the work I was doing.”

When fully utilized, the garden can offer you more than just better nutrition; it can help you step out of a sedentary lifestyle. The aim is to feel comfortable, confident, and pain-free in an environment that typically strains your body.

A Slow and Steady Process

How do you go from a lifestyle of movement monoculture to one of movement permaculture? Bowman offers a three-step process for slowly working up to full-body movements. For this example, let’s focus on how the process applies to the arms, remembering that you can apply this strategy to any muscle group.

Step 1: Mobilize your muscles. Start off by warming up and stretching the areas you’re going to work. For your arms, stretch the shoulders, forearms, and wrists, bearing no load besides the weight of your own body.

Step 2: Introduce light loads. If your goal is to be able to lift and carry 20-pound buckets of dirt for 25 feet, start with real-life loads that are lighter. At the grocery, carry a basket rather than push a shopping cart, and switch it back and forth between your arms as you shop. If you’re already a member at your local gym, try doing real-world, functional exercises; instead of using weights, grab a sandbag and slowly increase the amount of weight you carry.

Step 3: Increase weight and add complex movements. Work on bending, sitting, and standing with the load. Reduce sitting time to allow your legs to carry weight more often. Walk on more complex terrain that isn’t flat and smooth. Try pairing your movements with a slight twist.

Rachael Dupree is a writer and beginning farmer who grows food and medicinal plants for her family on 50 acres near Lexington, Kentucky.