By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
While gardening is a healthy activity for any age group, older Americans especially will find it a good way to stay fit. Because gardening is enjoyable, most people will spend more time doing it than they would other types of exercise, such as walking or swimming. However, the big surprise may be that it also has proven to be beneficial in helping to fight osteoporosis, a progressive loss of bone density that often results in fractures and broken bones.
A recent study by the University of Arkansas of 3,310 women, aged 50 years old and older, indicated that women who garden or do yard work at least once a week have higher bone density measurements than those who are sedentary or who walk, jog, swim, or do aerobics.
Of all types of exercise, only gardening and weight training involved the weight-bearing motions that help build strong bone and muscle. For gardening, this includes pulling weeds, pushing a wheelbarrow or lawn mower, or turning over soil. This type of exercise also aids in balance, critical to avoiding falls and possible bone fractures and breaks.
Gardening provides exposure to sunshine, which increases production of Vitamin D. This, in turn, allows the body to absorb more calcium, which is important for strong bones. Calcium also is found in many fruits and vegetables, especially dark green leafy ones, such as broccoli and collard, mustard, and turnip greens, along with acorn squash and kidney beans, all of which can be grown in home gardens.
Although osteoporosis is most often associated with post-menopausal women, in reality, 40 percent of the more than 25 million Americans with osteoporosis are older men. As with any exercise, regardless of age or gender, start slowly, especially if you haven't gardened in a long while. If you are over 50 or don't exercise regularly, it's a good idea to get your doctor's approval first.
Stretch for a few minutes before you begin, and be careful not to overexert yourself. Drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration, and take frequent breaks in the shade. Always wear a wide-brimmed hat, and use sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher, remembering to reapply every few hours.
Older gardeners may need to adapt their practices to make gardening easier. Invest in long-handled tools with good grip surfaces and a portable stool to facilitate weeding and planting. Use a foam pad for kneeling instead of the hard ground.
Bend at the knees--not the waist--to pick up tools or plants. Or plant in raised beds to eliminate the need to bend and stoop as much. Hire someone to till the garden instead of trying to do it yourself. Rest when you get tired.
Ask for help in lugging heavy bags of compost or fertilizer. Or inquire if your local garden center will deliver a load of compost directly to your garden site. Many will, often for free or only a nominal charge.
If buying a small quantity of compost, ask one of the employees at the garden center to load up the bags in your vehicle for you. When you get home, roll the bags out of the car onto a tarp that you can then drag to your garden. Don't try to lift the bags, but instead use a sharp knife to split each one open. Take out what you need, a shovelful at a time. This minimizes heavy lifting and will help prevent injury to your back.
Finally, consider other timesaving measures like drip irrigation for slow watering of plants and mulching to reduce weeding and improve soil moisture retention. Plant low-maintenance plants. For flowers choose perennials like daylilies, peonies (northern gardens), Siberian irises, or hostas (part to full shade) that don't require a lot of care.