Most people agree that exercise is good for you, but with gyms closed, group fitness classes halted and social distancing the norm to help curb the spread of COVID-19, there’s a great alternative right in your own backyard.
Combining sunshine, nature and physical activity, gardening is a great way for older adults to be active, even if they have some physical limitations.
According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), gardening provides a moderate level of physical activity, burning between 210 and 420 calories per hour. The CDC recommends that older adults get two-and-a-half hours of moderate physical activity each week, a goal you could hit with daily pruning sessions in your yard. And the digging, shoveling and lifting that are part of gardening could count as the muscle-strengthening exercise the CDC recommends at least twice a week.
The health-boosting benefits of gardening have been validated through several studies:
- One study showed that older adults who gardened enough to meet the CDC requirements for physical activity were in better overall physical condition, suffered fewer limitations in their daily lives due to health problems, and experienced less pain than non-gardeners.
- The same study showed that active gardeners could grip and pinch harder than non-gardeners, showing that gardening can strengthen your hands.
- A small pilot study showed that both children and older adults who took part in a gardening program for a year after surviving cancer were stronger, more agile and had better endurance than when they started the program. They also ate more fruits and vegetables and were more physically active.
- Gardening also seems to relieve stress. Ongoing stress can increase your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and depression.
Additionally, Alzheimer’s patients who participated in a horticultural therapy program for 12 weeks retained memories better and had a longer attention span than peers who didn’t take part. They also scored significantly higher on a cognitive assessment known as the Test for Severe Impairment than those who hadn’t gardened. The test assesses motor skills, language comprehension and production, memory, general knowledge as well as problem-solving and decision-making skills.
Candice Shoemaker, Ph.D., head of the Horticultural and Natural Resources Department at Kansas State University, created a pilot horticultural therapy program for people trying to recover their hand and arm strength after a stroke. Shoemaker was the lead author of the study that showed older adult gardeners had stronger hands than non-gardeners, and sure enough, her second study generated similar results. Her findings showed that people who gardened after a stroke made more progress in strengthening their hands and arms than those who did other kinds of physical therapy.
A variety of special tools can also make gardening easier for people with arthritis—everything from a weed-removal tool you can use standing up to extra-strong pruning shears that people with a weaker grip can operate.
“As people move into their late 60s and 70s, they often start having aches and pains and think they can’t garden anymore,” Shoemaker said. “But there are adaptations you can make that may allow you to keep gardening.”
Ready to reap the health benefits of sowing seeds in your own garden? Here’s a short list of tips to help you get started.
- Find out what kind of plants grow well in your area. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a free online tool that can help.
- Send away for free seed catalogs to explore your options. Seeds purchased from online retailers may be the best right now to support social distancing recommendations. Call ahead to make sure your order will arrive in time for spring planting.
- Remember that you don’t need a plot of land to garden. Plenty of plants will grow well in a container on your balcony, porch or even indoors. Tomatoes and other vegetables, some fruit trees and herbs are all good candidates to start your potted-plant garden.
- Your garden isn’t likely to be a 100% success the first time around — or maybe ever — and that’s OK. But learn from your mistakes and try again next season.
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