If you don't have time for a workout today, why not grab a shovel? "Ideally, you want to include both lifestyle and traditional exercise in your life," says Michelle Edwards, health educator for the Cooper Institute in Dallas. "But if you can do only common activities such as yard work, we try to encourage people to increase the intensity of doing them." And although studies have shown that sedentary people can realize health benefits by engaging in such mundane activities as gardening or washing the car, the real perk for active individuals may come from the mental boost you get doing them. "Gardening, mowing the lawn, playing with your kids—these are all excellent ways to be more mindful," says Deborah Kern, Ph.D., president of Harmony Mind/Body Health, a wellness-consulting firm in Dallas. The key is to focus on what you're doing and tune out the rest of the world. "When you do things you enjoy, your body releases healing neuropeptides. But when your mind is spinning off onto details that stress you out, the neuropeptides shift from the healing kind to the kind that suppress immune function and make it harder to metabolize fat."
Not sure how your Saturday afternoon chore rates as a mind/body booster? We came up with five common tasks and asked Kern to explain how to get a mental boost from each. In addition, Marc Bernier, a physical therapist at HealthSouth Sports Medicine & Rehabilitation Center in Birmingham, Alabama, suggests ways to keep your body from boycotting.
Muscle groups worked: arms, abs, back, legs (for lifting)
Calories burned: 266/hr. for a 130-lb. person
Mental motivator: Think about connecting with the earth. Stick your hands into the dirt and let it sift through your fingers, suggests Kern. Let your senses be heightened. Savor the smell of the dirt and grass.
Pro tips: "Proper mechanics are key," says Bernier. His advice: Lift with your legs, not your back. Don't stay in a squatting position for too long (it's hard on the knees). Use a towel to cushion your knees or simply sit down (stay away from stools because they can cause lower back pain by forcing you to bend too far at the waist). And get up periodically and walk around.
Walking the Dog
Muscle groups worked: legs, arms (depending on how well your dog walks on a leash), heart
Calories burned: 207/hr. for a 130 lb. person
Mental motivator: "Try circular breathing—in through your nose and out through your mouth—to calm your mind," says Kern. "Imagine breathing air in from plants and exhaling air out to them."
Pro tips: If you're going to walk your dog for any length of time, make sure you have on good walking shoes or sneakers. And watch where you're walking! ("I can't tell you how many people have tripped over a root or stump and caused several [physical] problems," says Bernier.) If you have a big dog, wrap the leash behind your back so you can use your entire body to pull, not just your arms. To up the workout—once Spot has done his business—try picking up the pace.
Muscle groups worked: legs, arms, back, abs, heart
Calories burned: 325/hr. for a 130-lb. person
Mental motivator: "Pull back your shoulder blades to open your chest so that you can take in more air," says Bernier. "Then focus on breathing deeply as you work." Also try to think about the patterns you're making in the grass (almost like creating your own labyrinth) and savor the smell of the freshly cut grass.
Pro tips: Bernier suggests that you keep your back upright and use your legs to propel the mower. Your arms should be at your sides to bring in the rest of your body. And your knees, not your back, should be used when emptying the grass catcher.
Muscle groups worked: back, abs, arms
Calories burned: 266/hr. for a 130-lb. person
Mental motivator: Make your hand movements tai chi—like (think about that scene in The Karate Kid: "wax on, wax off"). Tie your breathing in with your motions. Ground yourself in your feet and feel the energy flowing up and through your arms.
Pro tips: To avoid repetitive motion injuries like tendonitis (especially in your shoulder), take frequent breaks and try to keep your arms as close to your body as possible. Get an extender for the hose if you have to reach out too far.
Pushing a Child on a Swing
Muscle groups worked: arms, back, abs, legs (for power)
Calories burned: 165/hr. for a 130-lb. person
Mental motivator: Focus on and revel in your child's laughter, says Kern. Imagine yourself as a kid again, with no responsibilities and an easy sense of joy in simple things.
Pro tips: Don't stand in one spot, says Bernier. This forces you to overarch your back and then lean too far over. Instead, step forward and back as you push so you move with the swing.