Hate going to the gym? Head out to the garden

By William Davies, M.D., FACC, cardiology, Providence Heart Clinic-Willamette Falls and Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic-Bridgeport

If you've been feeling guilty because you prefer puttering in your garden over pumping iron at the gym, you can now, officially, get over it. A Swedish study has found that gardening and similar “non-exercise physical activities” may be the keys to a strong heart and a long life. 

In the study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, these types of activities reduced the risk of heart attack and stroke by 27 percent in folks over 60, and cut the risk of death from all causes by 30 percent.

This is important news for older people who want to stay healthy but who find it difficult to engage in more strenuous, formal exercise. Staying active in general, through routine activities such as gardening, housework, yard work and home-maintenance projects, was clearly linked to cardiovascular health and longevity – regardless of whether or not people exercised regularly.

I can't say that I'm surprised. But as a doctor with a special place in my heart for gardening, I'm happy to see the benefits of one of my favorite activities confirmed. Running, weight lifting and vigorous workouts at the gym are great, but they're not the only activities that count toward good health. As this study indicates, just puttering around in the garden can make a big difference – especially when compared to sitting inside watching television. 

Gardening gets you on your feet and keeps you moving. You kneel and squat to plant seedlings. You bend and stretch to pull weeds. You dig and push to turn the soil. You reach and pull to pick fruit and harvest vegetables. None of that may be particularly strenuous, but it all adds up to valuable cumulative physical activity.

In addition to the physical perks, there are bushels of benefits to gardening that the study didn't even get into. You glean positive mental and psychological benefits from spending time outdoors in natural light, breathing fresh air, interacting with the natural world and engaging in a relaxing activity that makes you feel good. You harvest powerful nutritional rewards from growing and eating your own fresh, organic produce. And let's not forget my favorite benefit: You get to savor the unbeatable flavors that burst from homegrown tomatoes and greens when they're fresh from the garden. Compared to store-bought, they're completely different things. 

Whether you are a heart patient or you're trying to avoid becoming one, I enthusiastically recommend cultivating an interest in gardening. Thanks to the Northwest's long growing season, you can reap the benefits of gardening almost all year round. Arugula and sugar snap peas are easy to start in the spring. Everything flourishes in the summer. Hearty greens like endive, escarole and radicchio do well in the fall and often grow through the winter. Mache, also known as corn salad, will grow all winter long. 

If space is an issue, one or two raised beds are all you need to grow several types of salad greens and a couple of tomato plants. If you don't have a patch of dirt of your own, consider sharing a community garden plot with a friend. Or, at the very least, make regular trips to the farmer's market for a nice, long stroll outdoors. Every little bit of activity counts, and the rewards of the labor are utterly delicious.