Who says that the best workouts only happen inside a gym? "Yard work is actually a great way to spruce yourself up as well as your yard," says Liz Neporent, author of numerous fitness books including Fitness for Dummies (For Dummies, 1999) and The Ultimate Body: 10 Perfect Workouts for Women (Ballantine, 2003).
In fact, studies published by the Cooper Institute, an exercise research facility with offices in Dallas and Denver, show that "lifestyle activities" can be as effective as a gym-based routine for keeping fit. And many people enjoy it more.
To help make fitness fun, we've created an easy-to-maintain schedule of activities that gets the whole family going but never overworked. Our routine keeps everyone from tiring out too soon, helps avoid strain injuries, and adds pizzazz to yard work.
The Aerobics Stage Your lawn is like a leafy green aerobics class. Raking burns about 340 calories an hour, pushing a gas mower slightly less. If you want an even higher calorie burn, notch up the intensity. "If I did it leisurely, it would take about 40 minutes to mow my lawn," says Linda Miranda, a research technician at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute in Chicago. "If I want a real workout, I set a goal of 30 minutes." The same works for raking.
If you own a leaf blower or a ride-on mower, leave them off for the first 30 minutes. Instead, haul out the rake and the push mower, and do a portion of the lawn the old-fashioned way.
The Strength-Building Stage It's time for the heavy lifting now that your muscles are warm. Fetch the ladder and start scrubbing the outside of the windows or cleaning the gutters. This burns about 150 calories every half hour. Throw in some strength training for your legs by climbing or descending the ladder slowly, says Andrea Dunn, PhD, a behavioral science researcher at the Cooper Institute's Denver office. You can also do a few standing pushups against the ladder when you reach the bottom.
Once you're on terra firma, do all the rest of the heavy work you can. Till the garden (100 calories every 10 to 20 minutes), stack firewood (the same), and power wash the decks (100 calories every 20 to 30 minutes). Move any lawn furniture to storage. Lug the bags of leaves out to the curb.
Take frequent breaks during this stage, says Dunn, and drink plenty of water. "Your muscles need water to work properly," she says. This is also a good time to get the kids involved. They can tote the wheelbarrow, hand you fresh rags, and jump in the leaf piles.
The Cooldown Stage Leave all the pleasant, easy tasks for the cooldown stage. You can trim weeds and bushes, tidy the garage, and put any finishing touches on the house or yard. Do a few light stretches to keep your muscles from stiffening. And take comfort in the fact that you just moved considerably closer to your fitness goals. "It really works," says Neporent. "I lost 15 pounds in the last year and it literally took nothing extra to do it."
Toning with Tools
Certified strength and conditioning specialist Liz Neporent developed the following muscle toning exercises exclusively for Better Homes and Gardens readers. For best results, do two sets of the exercises each time you do outdoor chores. In little time you'll develop strength in the muscles that fatigue most easily while working around the yard.
- Lawn Mower Lunges Stand up tall and hold the handle of your mower with a firm grip. Step forward with your right foot and push the mower. As soon as your right foot lands, bend both your knees until your left knee hovers just above the ground. Stand up and immediately step your left foot forward into the next "lunge." Alternate legs until you've traveled the length of your yard, usually 8-12 steps per foot. This tones your butt, legs, and middle.
- Spade Chop Hold a garden spade by the handle in front of your chest, using both hands and bending elbows slightly. Stand with your feet hip distance apart. Step your right foot to the side about a stride's length, shift your weight onto your right leg, and bend your right knee a little. Next, carefully lean forward and reach down to touch the tip of the spade to the outside of your right toe. Stand back up. Do the toe touches 10 times and then switch to the left side for another 10 reps. This is a butt, legs, arms, back, and middle workout.
- Leaf Raise Hold a trash bag half full of leaves or grass clippings in both hands. Stand with your legs hip distance apart. Keep a slight bend in your elbows and knees, and slowly raise the bag to shoulder height. Hold a second then lower it back to the starting position. Repeat 10 times. You'll feel this working your shoulders and arms.
Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, September 2004.