The noted homesteader Helen Nearing once told me that gardening was her tennis, her golf, her calisthenics. "I bend, stretch and leap every day," she explained. Helen had built a stone house in her seventies and was still growing her own food in her nineties. Her husband, Scott Nearing, who died at 100, was gardening almost until the end.
I agree with Helen that gardening is a wonderful way to stay young and fit. I find exercise regimens boring and would much rather let the garden be my personal trainers. Why tussle with a Nautilus machine when I can just walk outdoors, spend some time in the fresh air and sun, then come in with an armload of beautiful fresh food? The garden's a great stress reliever, too, as I learned from my busy pediatrician father. He grew vegetables and built stone walls on weekends to let off steam.
People who view gardening as backbreaking are probably using their backs when they should use their heads. The garden sometimes makes demands our bodies aren't quite ready for, such as wheeling a ton of manure from point A to point B, or sitting in a cramped position for hours thinning carrots. The trick is to vary both the position and the task. Wheel a few loads, then stop and tie up the tomato plants. If you're weeding, kneel on one knee, then the other, then sit, crouch or squat. It's easy to get caught up in a project and ignore what it's doing to your body -- until the next morning when you try to get out of bed.
It helps to plan ahead, and to divide jobs into small units. Deadlines are, well, deadly. My husband and I learned this the hard way when we had to create a series of gardens almost overnight for a TV series we hosted. It took a shiatsu practitioner named Diana Richardson to untie all the knots in our crippled little bodies. As luck would have it, Diana was a gardener and full of body-saving tips. Her advice was to always keep your weight over the center of gravity -- your hips -- keeping your back straight when you lift something, and to extend a slightly bent knee when you lean over to take the weight off your spine. She said to drink lots of water, and to inhale and exhale deeply while making strenuous motions. She suggested "stretching breaks" in which you relieve cramped muscles by pulling against a fence post or holding your shovel high above your head.
It all sounds like just good common sense. But too often we bring the same obsessive drive to gardening as we bring to our jobs. Gardening should be pleasurable toil, one part of a habitually active life.
Choosing the right tools will also spare you pain. Think of labor leader Cesar Chavez and his crusade against the stoop labor of the short-handled hoe. Tools should be well balanced, and of the right weight. If I had to use one of those hefty English spades, I'd need to go on steroids -- or give up gardening.
It is just as foolish to make gardening too easy by letting machines do all the work. Most of us accept the noise, smell and expense of rototillers, lawn mowers and leaf blowers. But if your garden is not huge, you can accomplish spring soil prep by hand with a four-tined digging fork, summer lawn mowing with a sharp hand-push mower and fall cleanup with a simple, old-fashioned leaf rake. Think of these as opportunities to tone your arms and firm your abs.
Compared with a modern gym, my garden isn't very stylish. It doesn't give me an excuse to go buy a new wardrobe of sexy, psychedelic workout wear. But all the current fitness goals are within my grasp. I can get a "heart/lung workout" from carrying the straw bales I use for mulch. I get my "weight-bearing exercise" by digging large rocks out of the garden. I even practice "resistance training" when I pull out stubborn roots and stumps. And why cheat myself out of an honest sweat by turning my compost in one of those hand-crank barrels, when I can fork it by hand? I may not know my gluteus maximus from my latissimus dorsi (weren't they Roman emperors?), but I am sure they both get well used when I dig an asparagus bed.
It's not everyone's idea of fun, but I loved laying a 900-square-foot terrace a few years back for a family wedding. The process was as rewarding as the final result -- a place to set up tables laden with food from the garden. I used jumbo cobblestones that were heavy but liftable, setting them in fine gravel. Okay, I smashed a finger or two, and lost a nail. But I also lost five pounds, and when the big day came, I looked great in my new dress.