The Athlete's Way

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Gardening Can Improve a Child's Fitness and Well-Being

Gardening provides moderate-to-high physical activity for children.

As part of the global ‘green’ movement to improve the environment, gardening is gaining popularity as an activity for people of all ages and physical abilities. A new study has found that gardening is an excellent way for children to get moderate-to-high intensity physical activity and promote healthier lifestyles for youth.

Previous studies have identified a wide range of physical benefits associated with gardening for both adults and seniors. In a new study, researchers in South Korea have found that children can reap a wide range of benefits from the high-to-moderate physical activity of digging, raking, and weeding.

The findings were published in the journal Hort Technology on January 31, 2014 in a study titled “The Metabolic Costs of Gardening Tasks in Children." Researchers Sin-Ae Park, Ho-Sang Lee, Kwan-Suk Lee, Ki-Cheol Son, and Candice Shoemaker hope that the data will inform future development of garden-based programs that help engage children in physical activity and promote healthy lifestyles.

The research team studied 17 children as they engaged in 10 gardening tasks: digging, raking, weeding, mulching, hoeing, sowing seeds, harvesting, watering, mixing growing medium, and planting transplants.

For the study children visited the gardens twice, and each child performed five different gardening tasks during each visit. They were given 5 minutes to complete each task, and were allowed a 5-minute rest between tasks. During the study, the children wore portable telemetric calorimeters and heart rate monitors so that researchers could measure their oxygen uptake, energy expenditure, and heart rate.

Digging and Raking Are “High-Intensity” Physical Activities

The results showed that the 10 gardening tasks represented moderate- to high-intensity physical activity for the children. Digging and raking were categorized as "high-intensity" physical activities; digging was more intense than the other gardening tasks studied. Tasks such as weeding, mulching, hoeing, sowing seeds, harvesting, watering, mixing growing medium, and planting transplants were determined to be "moderate-intensity" physical activities.

The researchers said that the study results will facilitate the development of garden-based exercise interventions for children, which can promote health and a physically active lifestyle. They added that the data can also be useful information when designing garden-based therapeutic interventions for children with low levels of physical ability.

Conclusion: The Benefits of Gardening Are Timeless Common Sense

Henry David Thoreau famously criticized modern civilization in Walden on the basis that it removes people from a sense of connectedness from one another and their connection to Nature. Gardening is a terrific way to reconnect. Thoreau claimed that the average man in a civilized society is less wealthy, in practice, than one in an agrarian, farming society. He believed that another benefit of gardening is that it gives each gardener a sense of self-sufficiency or 'self-reliance' by facilitating the ability to fulfill one's basic needs.

Thoreau's friend and neighbor in Concord, Massachusetts, Ralph Waldo Emerson, also advocated self-reliance and loved to garden. Emerson said, "When I go into the garden with a spade, and dig a bed, I feel such an exhilaration and health that I discover that I have been defrauding myself all this time in letting others do for me what I should have done with my own hands."

Although having a garden is not a possibility for many people… growing a family garden could create a win-win across the board. Having children involved in the process of growing vegetables improves fitness, increases the odds of them eating healthier foods, provides the reward of growing something, and gives young people a sense of self-reliance.

If you are a parent or caregiver trying to provide a wide range of rewarding physical activities for a child, this study confirms that gardening can be an excellent source of high-to-moderate physical activity for children and improve well-being. 

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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