Better Living By Doing Your Own Yard Work

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I live in a two-bedroom house on a 50x100-foot plot here in Pacific Standard’s home of Santa Barbara, California. The yard on my residential postage stamp is small, and so I do my own yard and garden work. That’s notable only in that my neighbors all seem to have gardeners, even though their commensurately tiny haciendas should require no more labor than the dab I do around my spread.

Sometimes when I’m cursing because my push mower won’t properly decapitate the couple of blades of crabgrass I call the yard, I see neighbors in Spandex, towels around their necks, motoring off to, I presume, go exercise in a gym. (I’m not counting the couple next door who ride their bike wherever they go. If they’re going to the gym, their transport choice gives them the moral authority to go with my blessing.) A few have offered to help me a get a gardener, apparently assuming I’m doing the quaint thing because my hired help quit. Some say they wish they had the time to do their own yard before they putter away.

My first thought afterwards is almost inevitably that you could save money on two fronts by doing your own yard work, getting free exercise and saving on the gardener. Then I go get the scissors from my kitchen’s junk drawer and finishing cutting the lawn.

I felt a frisson of vindication today when new research from Oregon State hailed the benefits of even tiny bits of exercise, like raking the leaves or mowing the yard, and compared them favorably to gym visits.

“In our society, you will always be presented with things that entice you to sit or be less active because of technology, like using a leaf blower instead of a rake,” a press release from OSU quotes Brad Cardinal, the co-director of the university’s Sport and Exercise Psychology Program. “Making physical activity a way of life is more cost-effective than an expensive gym membership. You may be more likely to stick with it, and over the long term, you’ll be healthier, more mobile and just feel better all around.”

I don’t know if I feel better, necessarily, but I am feeling superior right now.

Oddly, Cardinal and his then-grad student, Paul Loprinzi (now an associate prof at Bellramine) weren’t out to buttress my smugness but to see if being active in small ways (under 10 minutes at a time) can be just as healthful as full-blown, structured exercise sessions. In a paper appearing in the current edition of American Journal of Health Promotion, they report that the answer is mostly yes.

The pair studied more than 6,000 participants, ranging in age from 18 to 85. From that sample the researchers determined that a collection of short bursts of activity could be just as beneficial (using measurements in areas such as metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol) as longer bouts. One body area where longer sessions paid higher dividends was in lowering Body Mass Index, once colloquially known as losing weight, even though the short bursts did benefit losing inches.

The takeaway message from this is something you may not have needed a study to realize: A little activity is better that utter sloth, and lots of little exercises can add up to “real” exercise. Says Cardinal, who has long been a partisan of what he calls “lifestyle exercise”:

“You hear that less than 10 percent of Americans exercise and it gives the perception that people are lazy. Our research shows that more than 40 percent of adults achieved the exercise guidelines, by making movement a way of life.”

Now for a brief show and tell, courtesy of Oregon State:

A few of the short-burst activities and kilocalories they burn.