Outdoor fit club

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WHEN it comes to designing a garden, most of us have a wish list. That list might include a wooden arch covered with roses, raised beds filled with vegetables or a pond where wildlife thrives.

A dedicated space for gym equipment is a rather more unusual desire. Still, an outdoor gym was at the heart of the Really Fit Garden at this year's RHS Cardiff Show, where a trampoline was set into decking and a punchbag hung under the pergola. The aim of the design was to show the versatility of the garden as a place to exercise and also to demonstrate that gardening itself is an activity that can provide a great workout.

The physical and mental health benefits of gardening have been backed

up by numerous studies, along with the anecdotal evidence of millions of gardeners who feel better after a stint outdoors. Fiona Thackery, of horticultural charity Trellis Scotland, says that gardening has many benefits. "Gardening is classified as a 'flow' activity by some researchers," she says. "That means an activity that is all-absorbing so that you forget your troubles and even forget to have lunch or be stressed. Flow is not some New Age idea but a measurable state which involves changed brain waves." This change in brain waves has also been shown to slow the heart rate and reduce blood pressure.

Researchers at Kansas State University have found that regular energetic gardening is also on a par with jogging, swimming or other forms of conventional exercise when it comes to measuring health benefits. They found that unlike some exercise regimes, gardening was more likely to keep people interested, with tasks changing along with the seasons. Despite being an activity that is often described as "pottering", gardening actually burns an impressive number of calories. Top of the list is digging and shovelling, burning approximately 500 calories an hour. Mowing the lawn should burn up almost 400 calories over the same period, while weeding or raking will use up 200 calories. As well as burning fat, gardening helps muscle tone. When done regularly and energetically enough, it can help protect against heart disease.

This all sounds like excellent news for gardeners, but as with any form of exercise, there is a downside. "At the first sign of good weather, people hit the garden for hours on end," says Dr Ross McDonald, president of the Scottish Chiropractic Association. "It's almost like they try to get everything done on the day because they're not quite sure when the next good weather is going to be."

The result is often pain or injury. McDonald says the most common problems are repetitive strains in the elbows, wrists or shoulders as a result of pruning. "A lot of the time you may be reaching and extending and doing a lot of things above shoulder height, which puts a bit of pressure on the neck, shoulders and down the arms as well," he explains.

The other key problem area is the lower back. Lifting heavy weights, leaning forward and particularly twisting can result in serious injuries. "Pulling out clumps of weeds, doing the same movement 60 or 70 times, places a lot of stress on the spine," says McDonald.

So is there any way to maximise the health benefits a garden offers while avoiding injury? The Scottish Chiropractic Association has lots of simple tips that can help. One involves designing your garden with your back in mind – raised beds, low-maintenance planting – and buying lightweight, long-handled tools will all help. Heavy items such as sacks of compost and pots are best moved using a lifting trolley or a wheelbarrow, and lifting should be done from a squatting position using your legs and knees rather than by bending over. Consider splitting materials into lighter loads. It may take longer, but your back will thank you for it.

"I talk to patients about doing bite-sized chunks of different things," says McDonald. "You might do 20 minutes of pruning, 20 minutes digging, and then another 20 minutes mowing the lawn." He also recommends a warm-up and warm-down before and after gardening to stretch out the muscles. Doing lunges or shoulder rotations before a bout of pruning may sound a little OTT, but if you have a sedentary job and spend much of your time in front of a computer or in the car, it's really not such a bad idea.

Practical advice for different tasks includes using a proper kneeling pad for planting and weeding.

When it comes to pruning, "cut and hold" action secateurs and long-handled loppers will help ease the strain, as will cutting as close to your body as possible to avoid over-reaching.

The calorie-burning qualities of digging are a giveaway about how strenuous it can be, so you should warm up first with lighter tasks and then try to relax while you dig to avoid pressurised over-exertion which increases back strain. Regular breaks and taking small spadefuls will also help.

As for collapsing into a comfy chair with a cup of tea and a biscuit when you're done – bad idea. "People tend to go indoors and sit in a soft seat, and that puts a lot of pressure on the back," says McDonald. "It's better to keep moving gently and do some stretches to warm down, because otherwise when you try to get out of your seat, you find the lower back muscles have stiffened up."

Despite the risks and the aches and pains, the health benefits of gardening can't be overstated. "Putting in that regular time in the garden really is good exercise," says McDonald. Just treat gardening like a visit to the gym, with all the accompanying preparation. sm

• To find a chiropractor, visit the Scottish Chiropractic Association at www.sca-chiropractic.org

• For more on therapeutic gardening, visit the Trellis Scotland website, www.trellisscotland.org.uk

• For a host of exciting new plant products, visit www.vanmeuwen.com/scotsman