We only get a few months of nice weather where I live. I love to work out in the yard when it's warm. The thing is, I don't have time to go to the gym and work in the garden
Does yard work count as exercise?
The short answer is yes, every type of physical activity you engage in "counts." That is, it requires you to use your muscles and expend energy, so it benefits. But that's only part of the story.
My fancier answer, would be based on what your fitness goals are.
If you are interested in a basic level of overall fitness
The textbook definition of fitness is to have the capacity to perform daily activities and have a little left over for emergencies. So by the book, you are fit if you have the energy and strength to complete daily activities, and enough left over to respond to the unexpected - like if you have to run from an attacking cheetah. Or rush onto the subway before the doors close. Or catch up with the ice cream truck. If you're doing gardening in the summer and you have a desk job, then the gardening is an activity that requires you to build more strength than what you need to complete your regular tasks. That's good.
If your goal is to lose weight
If your goal is to lose weight, it gets a little more complicated. Not like quantum physics complicated, but maybe like geometry complicated or algebra complicated.
The basic formula for weight loss is: (number of calories ingested) - (number of calories expended)= potential weight gain or weight loss. For example, if you eat 1800 calories in a day, and only engage in 1500 calories worth of activity, you'll have something like this:
1800 calories eaten - 1500 spent on activity = 300 extra calories.
Your body must do something with these extra calories. As a rule, it will take them and put them into a little vault known as fat storage. Those calories now become part of your body weight and they will stay there until your calorie formula goes into a deficit as in:
1700 calories eaten - 2000 calories spent on activity = (negative 300 calories).
Your body must get those extra calories from somewhere. Just like when you're out of money and you go to the bank and withdraw some, your body goes into fat storage, and gets that extra energy, which had previously been stored as fat.
The reason I bring all of this up is because you will need to determine whether your yard work is sufficient to keep you in a calorie deficit. For example, a 160-pound person will burn about 250 calories an hour performing general gardening tasks like digging, filling, etc. That's about the same as a light general one-hour workout at the gym. However, you're probably spending more than an hour at a time in the garden - both because you love it and because it just takes a long time.
As far as calories burned goes, you might make out better working in the garden for the afternoon. Of course, if you are used to more rigorous workouts at the gym, you might break even, which is still a good deal because you get to be out in the fresh air doing something you love.
If your gardening sessions are not putting you into the same calorie deficit as your workouts, then you will need to adjust your nutrition accordingly. Cut back a little here and there. This could be a challenge - I get very hungry when I do yard work!
This scenario only takes calories burned into account. Your gardening activity won't result in much cardiovascular conditioning unless you're doing some heavy-duty wood-chopping or plowing.
If you want to build muscle
If your goal is to build muscle, gardening will certainly challenge you by requiring you to use specific muscles (such as those required to stoop, squat, bend, and yank), but again, unless you're doing a lot of tilling, or hauling boulders, gardening won't help you put on much muscle mass.
I live Western New York, and we have some long, hard winters. So I understand the need to be out in nature when the weather allows it; I think gardening is good for the soul. The way to get the best of both worlds might be to blend the activities. For instance, spend one day working in the garden, and then the next day go for a short run or a longer walk outside. Take your bike out and go for a ride to a nearby park. Alternate your gardening activities with some cardio, and try to get into the gym twice a week for a 45-minute weight training session. Then when winter rolls around again, you'll still be on course toward your weight loss goals, and you won't have to start your strength conditioning from scratch due to lack of muscle use.
Julie Scipioni McKown is a certified personal trainer and a fitness consultant.
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