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Culture » Get Out

Garden Workouts

Get a gym-level workout in your backyard


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If you plant a garden—there’s still time—you can use it to get a gym-level workout. Gardens require a lot of physical work, especially using the core. There’s also a good reason for growing at least some of your own veggies: the roller-coaster prices of produce. A head of red lettuce occasionally goes for over $1.50, and tomatoes have been around 90 cents a pound.

The health benefits are also persuasive. Fresh-picked veggies are obviously far more nutritious than the produce at the grocery store that was picked a week or more ago—it still looks fresh because it’s frequently sprayed with water, but it’s been losing nutrients and dying for days.

The hardest part of starting a garden is prepping the soil. The ground could be easily tilled, but using a shovel to turn it over is an intense and functional workout for the entire body. Sprinkle compost on top so it gets mixed into the soil as you loosen and aerate the dirt.

Buy a gardening foam pad so you can kneel in comfort. Basic tools include a shovel, rake, hoe and trowel. But in addition, get a 4-by-8-foot sheet of plywood at a hardware store. Ask an employee to cut it lengthwise into four foot-wide strips, and then cut three 6-inch pieces from two of the strips. That will give you six small rectangles of plywood and four 1-foot-wide boards, two being 8 feet long and two being 6 1/2 feet. These can be used as “steps,” a way to walk through your garden beds without packing down dirt or stepping on growing plants. Using them will also help with balance and agility.

An easy crop for beginning gardeners is lettuce. Garden space isn’t necessary; lettuce can even be used as a decorative plant in a flowerbed. Choose red, Simpson, romaine or other loose-leafed types; the tasteless iceberg type rarely heads well in the Wasatch area.

To keep the lettuce coming, plant a lot of it and pick only the outside leaves. That way, you won’t have to sacrifice a whole head for one meal. If the lettuce starts to “bolt,” or go to seed, break off the stem that pokes up from the center. Bend over, rather than kneel, to pick the lettuce leaves. Keep your back in a straight line. The up-and-down movement works your spinal erectors, obliques and butt.

Tomatoes are the most favored home-garden crop in the United States. They need to be staked; if the vine is allowed to sprawl out on the ground, all the tomatoes will ripen at once. You’ll have more than you can eat, then none. But don’t spend money on “cages.” A simple stake can be made from iron rebar and PVC pipe. Purchase 18-foot lengths of rebar and saw the PVC pipe into 3- to 4-foot lengths.

Switch up each hand you use to saw the PVC, thus working your shoulders while building your less-dominant arm. Hammer the rebar about six inches into the ground (working your biceps and back), then place a piece of PVC over the rebar, giving it a good whack with the hammer to seat it. Tie up each tomato plant as needed. For an extra workout, use your plywood “steps” and try to balance on one foot only while tying each plant as it grows taller.

Weeding is a huge (and hated) part of gardening. Use a hoe to uproot small weeds. Some, like alfalfa, keep coming back because the roots are thick and well-established. I’ve actually often spent an hour just digging up the roots of one stubborn patch of alfalfa. This is great physical exercise, but after digging a while, you may tire of the work. If you’ve dug down at least eight inches, just cut the root with a hacksaw or pruning shears. With that deep a cut, it won’t come back.

If there’s an easy way and a hard way to do something in the garden, choose the hard way to get more of a training effect. A garden gets easier as time goes on; you may have to be inventive to find a way to still get a workout. Meanwhile, you’re getting the most nutritious vegetables possible.