Although life in the 21st century is said to be “fast-paced,” many of us spend our waking life sitting (or slouching) in a chair. Consider these statistics: On average, Americans sit for 9.3 hours, while we spend 7.7 hours sleeping. Between 1980 and 2000, exercise rates stayed the same while “sitting time” increased 8 percent and obesity rates doubled.
This motionless, inactive way of life is just not the way we were meant to live, and is detrimental to our health. Regular movement protects us from disease in several ways, but most importantly it prevents oxidative damage and inflammation—the primary mechanisms underlying most modern diseases.
As a certified CrossFit trainer, I have witnessed first hand the explosion of “functional fitness,” a fitness system designed to prepare real people to handle real-life situations. “Functional movements” are performed at a high intensity and are constantly varied. Functional fitness borrows from disciplines such as yoga, Pilates, dance, and gymnastics.
This method is intended to prepare your body to perform normal daily activities such as walking, bending, lifting, and climbing stairs—without pain, injury, or discomfort. It typically involves periods of intense activity followed by periods of less intense activity, or moving in repetitious ways, for a period of time that, practically speaking, “gets the job done.”
Basically, the idea is to either do certain exercises that impact the body in the same ways as natural, daily activities, or perform the activities that are part of your lifestyle as if they were exercises. So, what daily activity provides a range of movements at varied intensities?
Did someone say gardening?
What would it look like if all of us began to look to our garden as a source of health and fitness? My friend Sue, marketing manager for Wild Planet, stops by her community garden each morning on her way to the office. It’s like her daily “gym ritual.”
While the rest of America is churning on the treadmill, watching the morning news, what would it look like if we began to view our daily chores in the garden as a source of transformational fitness? Allow me to show you how. Here are three functional exercises that, when performed with intentionality, have dramatic impact on the human physical condition:
1. Air squat. The squat is essential to your well-being. It can keep your hips, back, and knees sound and functioning in your senior years. Not only is the squat not detrimental to the knees; it is remarkably rehabilitative when performed properly.
Turn your weeding routine into a session of air squats. Each time you bend down into your rows to pull a weed, perform a proper air squat. The movement should be performed as follows:
• Stand with your back arched. Look straight ahead.
• Keeping weight on your heels, squat down below parallel, while channeling your knees outward.
• Keep your chest high and midsection tight.
• Return to a standing position while opening up the hips.
By the time you pull the last weed, you will have performed several sets of squats!
2. Deadlift. There is no greater exercise than the deadlift. It is unrivaled in its simplicity while unique in its capacity for increasing functional strength. If your fitness goal is to maintain functional independence well into your senior years, the deadlift is the most effective means to that end.
You can build the deadlift into your gardening routine by using it every time you bend down to pick up a heavy object (watering can, container, bag of soil, etc.). Here’s how to perform it properly:
• Start in a natural stance with feet under hips.
• Squat down (using the air squat technique above) and place a symmetrical grip on the object, with your shoulders slightly forward of the object.
• Keep your chest up, abs tight, and arms locked. Your shoulders should be pinned back and down.
• Look straight ahead while keeping your back arched.
• As you stand, the object you are lifting travels along the legs until you are locked out.
3. Cardio. Functional fitness includes short bursts of exertion in an effort to elevate your heart rate and build a strong cardiovascular system. Try turning ordinary tasks such as tilling, shoveling, raking, hauling, and mowing into mini cardio sessions.
As you perform these movements, do them with enough rigor that your heart rate becomes elevated and breathing slightly labored. Try to maintain this rigor for 60 to 90 seconds, then back off. This is called interval training. Intervals are the most effective way to build your cardiovascular system and increase your metabolism.
These are just three simple ways of turning everyday gardening tasks into dynamic and transformational movements. Gardening is the gateway to health and fitness. Our culture has a lot to learn from the activity of gardening. Together, we can become models for movement in a world that doesn’t move enough!