This article appeared in the November-December 2001 issue of Horticulture Update,
edited by Dr. William C. Welch, and produced by Extension Horticulture,
Texas Cooperative Extension, The Texas A&M University System, College Station, Texas.

Gardening: A Great Way to Fight Osteoporosis

Taken from "Gardening," a publication of the
American Nursery & Landscape Association

If you know an elderly relative, friend or neighbor whose passion for gardening hasn’t waned with age, perhaps you’ve noticed they’re more vibrant than their sedentary peers. It’s no coincidence. According to a recent study by Dr. Lori Turner at the University of Arkansas, women who garden weekly have stronger bones than those who are inactive or engage in jogging, swimming, walking or aerobics. Dr. Turner is an assistant professor of health science. She studied over 3,300 women, aged 50 and older, and found that only two activities are strongly correlated with higher bone density - weight training and yard work. There is a lot of weight-bearing motion with gardening, including digging, pulling weeds, and pushing a mower.

Being in sunshine not only feels good, it increases vitamin D production which helps the body absorb calcium. One of the strongest arguments for gardening as a means of fighting osteoporosis is that it is an exercise people tend to enjoy. People get caught up with gardening - they like having a beautiful yard, so they stay physically active longer to achieve that. With jogging, people tend to think, ‘When will this be over?’ Exercise not only builds muscle and bone, it aids balance. Good balance is critical to avoiding falls, a primary concern for seniors.

Dr. Turner spoke with the American Nursery & Landscape Association (ANLA) and offered some ongoing advice for those interested in gardening as a healthy habit and as a way to help avoid osteoporosis.

Getting started
If you’ve taken a winter break from yard work or haven’t been an avid gardener, start slowly and work your way up. If weather forces you indoors for several months, do calisthenics or weight training to keep in shape for gardening season. The video, “Be Bone Wise - Exercise” is available from the National Osteoporosis Foundation, (click on public/patient educational materials) or call l-877-868-4520. It’s also a good idea to have a physical exam before starting strenuous exercise. The NOF recommends that women have bone density tests around age 50, or at menopause.

Take a few minutes to stretch or warm up before you begin digging, weeding or pushing the wheelbarrow. Don’t risk dehydration. Keep water close at hand while working outdoors. People aged 65 and over must make an aggressive effort to stay hydrated. Use sunscreen and/or wear a hat and pause for shade breaks.

Work smarter
Several simple methods keep gardening from becoming a backbreaking chore. Raised beds require less bending and stooping. A portable stool makes weeding or planting easier on the body. Foam pads are gentler on the knees than hard ground. Next trip to the garden center, look for long-handled tools with good grip surfaces. Having several sitting areas throughout the yard encourages gardeners to stop, rest, and appreciate their efforts. Keep in mind the time-honored adage, “Take time to smell the flowers.”

Consider alternatives to lugging heavy bags of soil. You might have aged compost delivered by the truckload, directly to your garden. If small scale gardening is your ticket, most garden centers and nurseries are willing to load bags of dirt for you. What do you do once you’ve gotten the heavies home? Garden author Marianne Binetti suggest laying a tarp on the ground behind your car. Roll the bags of soil out of the car and onto the tarp. Drag the tarp to your intended garden site. Split the bags with a sharp knife and encourage the contents to spill out. This minimizes heavy lifting and allows you to garden independently.