Fitness can be as close as your own backyard.
Who needs gym memberships and Bowflex machines when you have a yard to take care of? Lawn and garden work -- activities such a digging, planting and mowing -- can work the heart and other muscles just as effectively as more traditional forms of aerobic exercise, say members of the University of Akron's sport-science and wellness-education department.
In some cases, yardwork is even more effective, said Ronald Otterstetter, an assistant professor who specializes in exercise physiology. Mowing the lawn with a human-propelled push mower, for example, burns 7.6 calories a minute -- more than walking on a treadmill at 4 miles per hour, which burns 6.6 calories. Digging is even more taxing, at 8.6 calories; raking burns 3.7.
And here's the best news: Any amount of aerobic exercise will help reduce your risk of heart disease, Otterstetter said. The most dramatic decrease in that risk -- 68 percent for men and nearly 61 percent for women -- comes from going from complete inactivity to exercising one day a week for 30 minutes, he said. The heart-disease risk continues to decrease as you add exercise sessions to the week, he said.
Otterstetter, along with colleagues Victor Pinheiro, an associate professor in the department, and Stacey Buser, program director for athletic training, offered these tips for getting the biggest fitness benefit out of working on your lawn and garden:
Warm up. "A lot of times, people don't consider [yardwork] as exercise until they get hurt," Buser said. Stretching and strengthening can help prevent injuries by preparing muscles for the work ahead.
Buser and Otterstetter recommended following the program outlined at Gardenfitness.com or checking out the exercises on other Web sites or in books available in the library or bookstores. You can use items you find around the house, Buser said -- squeeze a tennis ball to increase grip strength, for instance, and hold soup cans while doing arm curls.
Break up the work. Yardwork uses muscles in ways we're not accustomed to, Otterstetter said. And even when you're in shape, using the same muscles over and over again can lead to overuse injuries. One way to prevent soreness and injury is to change chores frequently, if you can -- dig for a little while, for example, then switch to raking or weeding. Or take periodic rest breaks.
Change positions. Even when you're doing just one job, change your posture from time to time, Buser advised. For instance, when you're planting annuals or weeding, kneel on a pad for a while, then change to a sitting position. Avoid bending over to work, she said.
Lift properly. You've heard this before: Instead of bending at your waist, bend at your knees when you lift. Let your hips, glutes and thighs do the work instead of your vulnerable back, Buser said.
Carry correctly. When you're lugging something heavy, such as a bag of fertilizer, carry it close to the center of your body instead of holding it out in front of you to distribute the weight more evenly, Otterstetter recommended. For really heavy loads, let a wheelbarrow to do the heavy work for you.
Stay hydrated. Your body needs fluids, so drink plenty of water while you're working in the yard. Don't wait till you're thirsty, Pinheiro said, and don't drink beer or other forms of alcohol. They cause dehydration and make you fatigued.
Don't overdo it. Weekend athletes are famous for plunging into exercise without proper preparation and paying for it with sore muscles on Monday morning. Weekend gardeners are no different, Pinheiro said. Don't try to get all the yardwork done in one day. Spread the work over a few days, and pace yourself.