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November 21, 2006
Posted November 24, 2006

Keeping fit by winter gardening

SOURCE: Barbara Bates,

Gardening provides a varied, rewarding, and family-related outdoor activity to help keep you engaged and fit throughout the year, said a University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator.

"Research has shown that gardening can lower blood pressure, keep muscles toned, strengthen bones, thereby reducing osteoporosis, promote weight loss, and reduce stress," said Barbara Bates. "It would be great to experience the healthy benefits of gardening year-round but on wintry Illinois days the call of the 'cozy couch' can be very tempting."

However, Bates, added, don't close up the garden shed after the last acorn squash is harvested and the bulk of the leaves have been raked.

"Being outdoors in winter is both refreshing and invigorating," she said. "There are several wintertime garden activities that will get you ahead next spring. These activities will also help you to maintain your summertime energy level, keep your body toned, and hinder strain and pain next spring."

A good way to start is by tending compost.

"Compost is gardener's gold," she said. "It makes excellent soil amendment or mulch, and composting is an environmentally friendly activity."

She recommended speeding up the composing process by turning the pile every week or so. Turning compost burns in the neighborhood of 250 calories in 30 minutes. It is a total body workout but primarily uses the upper body muscles. Avoid twisting the upper part of the body when turning and moving the compost as this can cause injury.

"A healthy, active compost pile should smell earthy when turned, and it should produce steam on cool days," said Bates. "Kids will be excited to see the variety of interesting insects that are hard at work digesting garden leftovers. Have the kids add kitchen scraps throughout the winter, and water the pile if winter moisture is lacking.

"They might even find a hibernating toad."

More information about composting is available at

Another way to stretch and work upper body muscles is by pruning small trees and shrubs.

"It is easy to see the branch structure after the leaves have fallen, and to detect broken, rubbing, and weak-angled branches," she said. "Thinning of branches is easier in winter as well."

A good time to apply wood chip mulch around trees and shrubs comes after the ground freezes. Loading and hauling mulch in a wheelbarrow is a good workout for both the upper body and the legs. Again, be careful not to twist as you shovel or fork the mulch into the wheelbarrow. Lift the wheelbarrow by bending your knees, grabbing the handles, then straightening your knees. Push the wheelbarrow with your back straight.

"To avoid stressing muscles, it is best to alternate activities using differing groups of muscles," Bates said. "For example, alternate tasks such as raking and digging--primarily lower body muscles with pruning--upper body muscles.

"Overworking muscles with repetitive motion can lead to soreness or even injury. Know your own limits and never overdo."

Stripping sod for new beds and installing edging or cutting natural edges is an excellent winter workout that will leave you ready to plant at the first chirp of a robin, she noted.

"Make sure the ground is not frozen or wet," she said. "If the soil is friable, add compost or leaves. If the beds are intended for shrubs, you can apply mulch in winter, then just rake it aside prior to planting next spring. If the bed is intended for annuals or perennials, it is better to prepare the soil and mulch in the spring."

During wet weather, cleaning, sharpening, and repairing tools can be rewarding. A sharp shovel, hoe, pruner, mower blade, or trowel will make any task easier.

"Sharp tools also make injury to you less likely and will give a cleaner, quicker-'healing' wound to plants," Bates said. "Oiling tools will keep them in good working order and prevent rusting."

For more tips on tools, go to the U of I Extension garden website (, and then click on October 22.

© 2005 The Cairo Gate