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Four ways gardening is a great workout

As warmer weather comes to most parts of Canada, many people are readying their gardens for another fruitful spring and summer. And while many Canadians tend to their plants simply for the joy of it, the pastime also offers some real health benefits.

“When we garden, every part of the body is benefiting,” says Dr. Andrea Furlan, a physician at the Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Temerty Faculty of Medicine.

Here are four reasons why gardening is great exercise.

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1. It gives your cardio a boost

Cardio is any movement that gets our heart rate up and causes us to breathe harder. By that definition, gardening fits the bill – especially for people who are more sedentary or a bit older, Furlan says.

“Carrying soil bags and plants and squatting and standing will lead to an increased heart rate. You are training your respiratory system by asking it to put in more effort than the baseline.” Plus, moving around is good for blood circulation.

So while watering flowers might not get your heart pumping, tilling the soil to get it ready for seeds or pushing a heavy wheelbarrow full of dirt is sure to get you panting – a sign that your cardiovascular system is engaged. No wonder a 2023 study from Penn State found that adults aged 65 and up who garden had better cardiovascular health than those who didn’t.

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2. It helps with mobility

When you’re gardening, you’re constantly pushing, pulling, squatting and bending – all actions that are common in our day-to-day lives. As Furlan says: “We need these movements to survive.”

With the added weight of soil and gardening equipment, these movements become functional exercises that can make your daily life easier. In particular, Furlan says, some can help keep joints limber and decrease the likelihood of falls and other injuries. “By exercising legs and getting them stronger, if you lose balance, you’ll be able to recover quickly without falling.”

The activities can also lead to increased movement overall, which could ward off osteoarthritis, Furlan adds. The degenerative joint condition, common in older adults, can cause pain, swelling, stiffness and mobility issues.

“We used to think that, as people aged and used their joints more, it would get weaker,” she says. “Now we know that’s not the case.”

3. It can boost your mental health

Gardening has a number of mental-health benefits too. First, it increases mindfulness: Focusing solely on the task at hand leads to being present in the moment. Furlan describes it as a “timeout from the rush of activities, screen time, traffic, work and activities that are constant.”

The hobby can also be a social activity, as gardeners are likely to share fruit and vegetable harvests or show photos of their flowers to loved ones. “It could be an opportunity to socialize with their grandchildren, neighbours, spouse,” she says. “So many people suffer from social isolation and it has a lot of negative health consequences.”

According to research done by scientists at the University of Chicago, these include higher risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, cognitive decline, Alzheimer’s and even premature death.

4. Just being outdoors has a ton of benefits

More and more mental-health experts are recommending “green exercise” – outdoor physical activity – for its positive effect on mood. And Furlan says that people who spend more time outdoors “tend to have less chronic diseases and therefore live longer.”

According to one 2019 study in Scientific Reports, spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and well-being, regardless of how long each trip lasts. Which means you can reap benefits whether you pop outside for short visits – or spend a couple hours toiling in your garden bed.

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