I dread raking leaves, bagging them and hauling brown bags as tall as me to the curb. I don't really dread the hard work. In fact, I love exercise and am not opposed to sweating.
Nor do I dread the tedium and monotony. On the contrary, I rather enjoy the Zen-type repetitive motion and the quiet time it lends me to think.
The real reason I dislike raking thousands of leaves is the way it makes me feel the next day. I'm sore - sore from using muscles I apparently don't use on a daily basis between lugging around my 2-year-old, carrying or even going on my habitual run. None of these activities targets certain muscle groups the way raking and bagging leaves does.
This thought leaves me dreaming each fall about how maybe my fallen leaves might just blow away into the neighbors' yard if I give them enough time and it doesn't rain. Then I think: How would it look if the lady who writes about gardening lets her lawn waste away by avoiding the task at hand. I curse the overgrown sycamore with its dinner plate-sized leaves. I've even gone so far as to rake all the leaves into dozens of large, waist-high piles and leave them for a few weeks. I think I was secretly hoping for another microburst to disperse them blocks away, where I wouldn't have to give them another thought.
In any case, the job is now done - sort of - and it got me thinking about the best ways to keep fit to handle outdoor chores. I mean the gutters still need cleaning, shoveling snow is surely on the horizon and there's no greater joy than doing a job yourself, right?
A fellow gardener told me about a strength trainer she employs to keep her out in the garden instead of moaning, lying horizontal on her couch. He specifically aids her in gardening exercises.
His name is Loren McVey, a gardener's weight trainer, and he's been teaching functional strength training for 30 years
He explains his approach to fitness: "I try to teach weight training in such a way that the strength gained can be used in improving a person's daily life, for example, making daily chores easier, like moving furniture, picking up bags of groceries or a big bag of dog food, holding your children and grandchildren, and doing yard work."
Put your back into it
¢ Do the heavy lifting first in your garden before you tire. ¢ If you squat when you weed, keep your back as straight as possible. ¢ Bend at the knees using your thigh muscles, not at your waist. ¢ Do not lift and twist in the same motion. ¢ The most common gardening injuries are back strains and knee pains, so concentrate on exercises to enhance these areas. Source: gardening.about.com
According to McVey, the key to a good gardener's workout is developing a strong core (abdominal and back muscles), as well as hip and leg strength. And although you may believe that you are a magnificent specimen, soreness tends to be universal.
"Soreness can develop on any part of the body that is not conditioned to its particular activity," McVey says. "Regardless of the fitness programs done in the off-gardening season, there will be some fatigue and soreness. No matter the fitness level of the individual, doing an activity that is different or unusual will result in some aches and pains. But the better shape you are in the quicker the recovery."
Well it certainly makes me feel better knowing that Billy Blanks, the creator of Tae Bo, likely would be sore, too, after a day of raking. The key is to stay fit all year and not rest on our laurels during the winter months.
"Try to stay in shape year-round," McVey says. "Work gradually into the gardening season, regardless of your fitness level. Gardening should be fun, and the better shape you are in when you approach any garden task, the more fun you will have in the garden."
So while the plants are dormant and you're thinking it's time to bake cookies, curl up with an old movie and hibernate, resist the urge. Now is the time to be strengthening your core muscles.
"The thing to remember is that, with age, we tend to lose some of our flexibility. But with proper strength fitness developed before the gardening season, you should see results like less fatigue and soreness," McVey says. "Secondly, strength training will help prevent injury. This may be particularly important for the back. The back takes a real beating with gardening. We bend a lot while gardening and tend to lug around objects that are much too heavy for a weak back to endure."
Connie Emerson has been reaping the rewards of working out with McVey for six years, two sessions a week.
"It keeps me stronger, and I have more endurance," she says. "It helps in maintaining the strength that I have. He tends to mold a workout for the individual as well, accommodating the client with your particular needs, adjusting for age, strength and ability. I get a lot out of it. It keeps me generally more active and definitely busy gardening."
It's also crucial to keep in mind that even during the growing season, gardening alone is not enough exercise to provide a complete and balanced workout.
McVey elaborates: "I garden myself, fairly extensively. I train with weights year-round and walk, run and bike. I still find that for the first week or two of the season I'll tire easily from working outdoors in the garden. You have to have a wide arsenal of options in fitness to stay in peak form."
So, get up, grab the dog leash, go for a run or just stretch and hum a few meditative ohms, but don't reach for the cookies or dig into another piece of pie, because gardening season will be here before you know it, and there's no time to start like today.