The Official Gardening Calorie-burning Checklist

Did you know that June 6 is National Gardening Exercise Day? It’s celebrated on this day every year, with individuals, companies and groups getting together to promote the idea of gardening as a healthy and enjoyable way to burn calories and stay active.

When you garden, you experience several health benefits as we mentioned in a previous article on indoor gardening. All that planting, watering, pruning and weeding eases stress and anxiety, improves memory and concentration and boosts self-esteem and well-being.

Indeed, just being around plants can improve your state of mind, giving you more energy and helping you to feel more alert and alive. However, on June 6, we narrow our focus to zoom in on one very important benefit: exercise.

You can burn calories by gardening and, if you choose the right types of activities, can also lose some weight. If you’re tired of the treadmill and the gym, we help you tailor your efforts so that you double your efforts by losing weight loss while creating a beautiful garden at the same time.

We’re Not Getting Enough Exercise — and We Need It

Only about one in five adults meet the 2008 physical activity guidelines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, & Nutrition states that less than 5 percent of adults participate in 30 minutes of physical activity each day. Only one in three adults receive the recommended amount of physical activity each week.

These trends are dangerous as a lack of regular exercise is linked with a number of health problems, including overweight and obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease and more. The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD) states that people who are inactive have an increased risk of colon and breast cancer and have the highest rate of heart attacks.

Regular physical activity, on the other hand, is protective in many ways, including:

  • Helps protect the brain, decreasing risk of dementia by 50 percent
  • Reduces risk of stroke by two-thirds for men and by 50 percent for women
  • Cuts risk of heart attack in half with just 3 hours a week of activity
  • Maintains muscle strength, which is critical to performing daily activities as we age
  • Supports bone health and strength
  • Reduces mood swings and helps maintain emotional well-being
  • Boosts the immune system and helps people avoid diseases like the common cold and flu

According to a 2012 study, leisure-time exercise is even associated with a longer life, regardless of body weight. Those who got at least 2.5 hours of moderate exercise a week lived an average of 3.5 years longer than those who didn’t, and those who got at least 5 hours a week of moderate or 2.5 hours of vigorous exercise a week lived an average of 4.2 years longer. In general, the more physical activity, the longer the life expectancy.

It can be tough to fit exercise in, however, particularly when you have so many other things going on in your life. This is where gardening can help. If you know that your plants need your attention or they may wither and die, that can be a strong motivation to put on your boots and get out there in the dirt.

We have more motivation for you: gardening burns calories. No matter what you do, it will help you use up the calories you’ve consumed, which is good for your waistline and your overall health.

How Many Calories Do You Need Each Day?

Before we get into the details of which gardening activities are the most workout-intensive, it’s important to understand how the body works.

Let’s talk calories first. A calorie is a unit of energy we use to determine how much energy the body will gain by eating or drinking something and how much it will use up during a certain type of activity. An apple may contain about 80 calories, for example, and walking a mile may use up about 100 calories.

We need calories to survive, because they are our fuel. Just like a car without gasoline comes to a stop, so the body would starve without food and drink. Every cell in the body and brain needs energy to function. Even when we’re just sitting in the chair watching television, the body needs energy to breathe, circulate blood, grow and repair cells and more.

In today’s world, our problem is that we typically consume more calories than we need to fuel our daily activities. How much is enough? It varies depending on the person. How tall you are, plus your age, gender and  daily amount of physical activity all factor into how many calories you need for optimal health.

A six-foot-tall, 24-year-old professional football player, for example, is going to need a lot more calories than a five-foot-tall, 80-year-old elderly woman whose most vigorous activity every day is walking to the mailbox.

Some national organizations have tried to set an average, just to make it easier to judge what you’re getting. The National Institutes of Health says that a middle-aged woman who is moderately active should get about 2,000 calories a day while a middle-aged man who is somewhat active should get about 2,400 to 2,600 calories a day.

It Doesn’t Take Much to Gain Weight

When you consume more calories than your body needs, the body stores the extra energy as fat. Eating just 150 extra calories a day — about 22 almonds or 9 whole-grain crackers — for six months results in a weight gain of 5 to 10 pounds a year.

To avoid gaining weight, you need to be sure that you use all the calories you consume, so your body isn’t forced to store any. To lose weight, the story goes, you have to burn more than you eat. That’s why exercise is part of any weight-loss program, along with a reduced-calorie diet.

How the body switches from using calories to using fat is somewhat complicated, but the underlying message is that, by burning more calories every day and controlling your calorie intake, you can shed the pounds gradually. Also, the more fit you are — including your muscle development — the more efficient your body will be at keeping the weight off.

Calories Burned in Various Gardening Activities

According to a 2013 study, three hours of gardening can have the same effect as an intense hourlong workout at the gym. Participants worked in their gardens for about five hours a week, which the researchers found added up to about 722 calories.

Below, you’ll find common gardening activities and the estimated calorie burn for each one. Keep in mind that these are only estimates and that results will vary depending on the person. How fit you are to begin with, how much you weigh and how hard you work at the activity will factor into your final number of calories burned.

In general, you can increase the intensity of your workout by:

  • Doing more things manually like using a push mower rather than a riding mower
  • Changing positions frequently
  • Working at a steady, constant speed

For more information on getting the most out of your gardening workout, see this post.

Watch your form carefully as many gardeners end up with back pain because they fail to watch their posture. Always tighten your core muscles to support your back and keep your back straight and aligned with your shoulders and hips. Bend at the hips or use squats to get low.

The following figures can serve as a guideline for planning your weekly gardening activities. You may want to do the more intensive activities one or two times a week, for example, and then vary them with the lower-intensity activities on the other days.

Applying Fertilizer or Watering: 20 to 50 calories per 30 minutes

If you’re walking along applying fertilizer, seeding a lawn or watering your garden, you’ll burn about 20 to 50 calories every half hour. It’s one of the lower-intensity activities on the list, so don’t expect to get too much of a workout here. Use this one to offset your higher-intensity workouts on other days.

If you want to get more out of this activity, break it up. Instead of using a hose to water, use a watering can and walk back and forth to fill it.

Weeding: 150 to 170 calories per 30 minutes

Spend about a half hour pulling weeds from your garden, and you’ll burn about 150 calories. Other estimates put the number a bit higher, at about 170 per 30 minutes. The faster you go and the more vigorously you work, the more you’ll burn. To intensify the workout, use more squats and lunges to get at the weeds rather than sitting down in the dirt. Don’t let your knees go over your toes.

Planting: 150 calories per 30 minutes

Planting will take about the same amount of effort as weeding, yielding a 150-pound person about 150 calories burned in about 30 minutes. You can increase that number by lunging as you go — lunge, plant, get up, step forward, lunge, plant and repeat the process for each item.

Digging: 190 to 200 calories per 30 minutes

Digging requires more energy than weeding or planting as you usually have to rely on your muscles to get that dirt loosened and out of the way. It’s a great exercise for your shoulders and back — just remember to keep your core muscles firm as you work to avoid hurting your back. If you’re squatting down or lifting rocks out, you’ll also be working your thighs and buttocks. A half-hour will burn about 190 to 200 calories.

Clearing Land: 200 calories per 30 minutes

If you’re just starting your garden, you may have to clear a space for it. This is a great activity to do to burn some calories, as it usually combines digging with lifting and carrying, working the entire body. Estimates are that you’ll burn about 200 calories every 30 minutes. The same is true for spading and tilling.

Mowing the Lawn: 50 to 250 calories per 30 minutes

The best way to burn calories by mowing is to use a push mower. Estimates are that you’ll burn about 170 calories every 30 minutes this way. If you use a hand mower (without power), you’ll raise that number to about 250 calories every 30 minutes. A riding mower, of course, requires a lot less energy on your part as you’ll burn only about 50 calories every 30 minutes.

Hedge Trimming: 120 to 150 calories per 30 minutes

Often when your trimming hedges or trees, you’re using heavy equipment that you have to hold up and move around. That can help burn more calories for you. Estimates vary — it probably depends on how heavy your equipment is and how intensely you work. Trimming in this way will burn about 120 to 150 calories per 30 minutes.

With manual trimming, however, you’re not supporting the weight of a machine, which may help you burn more calories because you have to use more muscles to do the work. Estimates are that trimming by hand will burn about 180 to 200 calories per half hour. You’ll also be likely to build up your bicep and shoulder muscles.

Raking: 200 to 400 calories per 30 minutes

The best way to turn this activity into a good calorie burner is to combine your raking and sacking activities. Rake for a bit, then stop and put the grass and leaves in your trash bag. Combining the two will help you burn about 200 to 300 calories or more per half-hour, although some estimates put it up in the 350 to 400 calorie range. If you stick to raking alone, you’ll cut that number about in half.

To get the most out of your raking, stand with feet about hip-width apart and use a wide raking motion on each side. This is a great workout for your arms and upper body.

Laying Sod or Crushed Rock: 200 calories per 30 minutes

This is a more high-intensity gardening activity as you have to carry the heavy sod pieces or bags of rock, bend and stand to set them into place and move them around to fit. You’ll burn at least 200 calories an hour at this activity.

Moving Waste With a Wheelbarrow: 300 to 400 calories per 30 minutes

This is a higher-intensity workout because you’re lifting a significant amount of weight with the wheelbarrow and whatever is inside it. Estimates are that filling, moving and dumping a wheelbarrow will burn about 300 to 400 calories an hour — maybe more — depending on how quickly you’re moving and how much you’re carrying.

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