The sport of gardening: Dig right in

Gardening isn’t a fitness sport, but it can produce many hours of pleasure. It can be great exercise, too. Intense gardening with intentional schlepping can burn 200 calories to 400 calories an hour. Add an hour of mowerobics with old-fashioned, non-electric, human-power tools, and you can double that.

Gardening tasks like digging, lifting, bending and carrying can certainly make you stronger and more flexible. But be warned: Those same tasks can cause surprising numbers of aches and pains. To prevent problems and promote your own personal growth as a mindful gardener, consider the following:

  • Warm up before digging in. It’s always wise to gently stretch out your major muscle groups - arms, legs, torso, shoulders and neck - before and after you work in the garden. It helps prevent achiness the next day and reduces your risk of injury. Shake out and stretch out your wrists and hands, too.

Easing into action is especially important for senior gardeners, because the older we get, the tighter we get, and tight, inflexible muscles are more vulnerable than muscles that are toned and tension-free.

Cultivate awareness. There’s a right way and a wrong way to bend, kneel, lift and carry when working in the garden. Do it right, your zucchinis will flourish. Do it wrong, and you’ll be searching for your insurance card.

When you pick up a bag of fertilizer or shovel some dirt, gently bend at the knees, not the waist. Keep your back as straight as you can and lift slowly, using your legs to absorb and carry the load.

When carrying heavy objects around the garden, keep your arms close to your body, not out in front. No twisting or jerking your back.

If you’re shoveling dirt, take small bites. Use lightweight, ergonomically-correct garden tools. Protect your knees by kneeling on something soft, and by stretching every 15 minutes or so.

And remember to breathe deeply and fully. Use your exhale to focus your attention and boost your energy. Don’t overload or overdo.

Grow as a person. Gardening connects us to the earth. No other exercise I can think of offers such a unique payoff. We nurture the soil, and in return, the soil nurtures us.

There is a mindful exchange of energy - you plant, nature grows - that often feels like joy. And emotional health is as much a part of being fit as time spent on the treadmill.

Remember: Gardening grows on you. The more energy you expend, the better. Cultivate other fitness activities, too, for cardiovascular health, but enjoy the myriad benefits of gardening. It tones your muscles, relaxes your mind and enriches your spirit.

And does anything taste more delicious than a just-picked tomato from your own garden?

Dear Marilynn: Summer is coming, and I want to look better in shorts. What can I do in the gym to make my calves look more shapely?

  • T. M., Ames, Iowa

A: A great exercise to both shape and strengthen your calves is the heel raise. It’s simple, it’s effective, and you don’t need fancy equipment to get the job done. Stand with the toes of one foot balanced on a step, your weight over the heel of the foot on the floor. Then slowly rise onto the toes of the foot on the floor.
Focus on lifting your heel and arch off of the floor. Hold the lift for two seconds to four seconds. Then, keeping your knee straight, slowly lower your heel to the floor.

Repeat this move, slowly, eight times to 12 times, and then switch legs and repeat. When this gets too easy, you can add resistance by holding a dumbbell in each hand, at your sides, as you slowly rise up and down.

Heel raises done with enthusiasm every other day will shape your calves, but to really get a leg up on your health and wellness, they should be part of an overall strength-training program that works your entire body.

“Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are. ... Lovers, farmers and artists have one thing in common, at least: a fear of dry spells, dormant periods in which we do no blooming, internal droughts only the waters of imagination and psychic release can civilize.” That’s from “The Solace of Open Spaces"by Gretel Ehrlich.

Marilynn Preston welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to