Can Gardening Count as My Workout?

Last week, I was at Davis Mountain Fitness & Training Camp, where I hiked, ran, yoga-ed, water aerobicized, and swam to my heart’s content. I even had a lovely walk to and from meals. My body was almost always in motion.

This week….well, I’ve avoided my regularly scheduled exercise. Confession: I’ve skipped all of it. Rain cancelled my Aqua Interval class. Even Jazzercise was affected by potential flooding. I ran nary a step on road or trail.

To be honest, I just didn’t feel like it.

What I did feel like, however, was yard work. Every sunny moment (and even quite a few rainy ones), I raked, clipped, swept, pulled weeds, bagged leaves, spread gravel, and generally puttered around with plants. My time outside was a joy.

Neon letters placed on grass that spell out "JOY."

Afterward, I slunk around, moaning about being a slacker for treating myself to fun yard work instead of hitting my planned workouts. But should I—feel guilty, that is? Could gardening actually pull double-duty?

Calorie Burn in Gardening

Photo of leaves swept into a pile with smiley face made out of twigs.

According to an article for WebMD by Gina Shaw, calories expended in an hour of yard work are as follows:

  • Heavy yard work, such as landscaping, moving rocks, hauling dirt: 400–600
  • Raking and bagging leaves: 350–450
  • Gardening, such as pulling weeds, planting flowers: 200–400
  • Mowing the lawn: 250–350
Large moth resting on herbs in garden.
I love the bugs and critters that go along with a xeriscaped landscape. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler

What accounts for the spread? Well, age plays a factor. As we get older, our bodies lose muscle and gain fat (oh, cruel world). So even though I’m quite a vigorous gardener, I’m not burning through those calories at the rate my 35- (or even, ahem, 45-)year-old self did.

Because I so enjoy working outside in the yard, I have stamina on my side. It’s like running; I MUCH prefer filling a day with miles on the trail to pushing pace over a fast, hard 5K road route.

Left to my own devices and without any pressing schedule, I will easily spend 6 hours working in the yard. Yes, I forget to eat. Neighbors stop by to say, worriedly, “Are you STILL out here? Have you taken a break yet?”

I’m that crazy old lady devoted to her yard. If “Xtreme Gardening” were an X Games event, I could medal.

Will Gardening Keep Me Fit?

Purple trailing lantana with metal lawn chairs in background

The Mayo Clinic explains that 70 percent of calories burned in any day are set by an individual’s basal metabolic rate, which is determined by age, body mass, and sex. The rest? That’s up to thermogenesis, a fancy word for the various processes that go into eating, and physical activity.

Physical activity gets broken down in to “regular aerobic exercise, strength training, and lifestyle exercise.” Lifestyle exercise: taking the stairs, walking, housework, all that everyday life stuff. Gardening falls into what is often dismissively considered the  “I don’t really work out” category.

I think every one of us who has ever trained for some sporting event worries that “lifestyle activity” is not enough of a workout to maintain fitness. The other worry? Whether everyday physical movement will keep us from getting fat.

I can’t tell you how many friends I’ve heard say, “I’m training for another Ironman/ marathon/ ultra/ pick your poison because I don’t want to lose this level of fitness and gain weight.” We’re just freaking scared to risk slowing down.

Clump of bluebonnets in Austin yard landscaping.

For an aging athlete, especially a woman who’s also taking a hit in the hormones with menopause, this is a huge struggle. I worry constantly–on which side of the workout line am I standing?

  • Am I wimping out or listening to an older body that needs more rest?
  • Have my results changed because I’m sadly out of shape or are they the inevitable creep of physical decline?
  • Am I letting myself go or has age brought greater acceptance of my body?
  • Is my competitive drive gone or am I setting realistic expectations?

What I have managed to accept is a much more relaxed view as to what constitutes the right workout mix. Three 1-mile walks in a day can step in for that 3-mile morning run. I can mix three run workouts with three days of Aqua Interval classes instead of six days pounding.

Healthy and happy means I’m successfully walking the workout line.

And so I’ll settle for 4 hours of fun-filled, bring-a-song-to-my-heart gardening instead of an early morning 4-mile run.

In hindsight, then, I have worked out this week. And now I’m wondering…when will my friends start inviting me to perform my lifestyle exercise in their yards?

Hen, rooster, and three yellow chickens in metal yard art.
I have a fondness for yard art. Meet my flock of free range chickens. Photo credit: Leah Nyfeler
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Published by Leah Nyfeler

I’m a writer, editor, runner, and adventurer who is always looking for the next new story, exciting adventure, and good meal/book/movie. My focus is on helping people find their best, healthiest self through sharing what I know and how I’ve come to learn it. In addition to my blog “Enjoying the Journey: Observations on the Fit Life” at www.leahruns100.com, my articles have appeared in a variety of print and online magazines. You can hear me as part of the 2015 Austin cast of Listen To Your Mother.

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