An Alameda Garden: Building Good Bones in the Garden

Friday, March 14, 2008

Building Good Bones in the Garden

I’ve often heard of the need for a garden to have “good bones”--a strong basic structure on which everything else is built. But with each passing year I’m becoming more aware that we gardeners need to have good bones too. Lucky for us, strong, healthy bones can be a by-product of gardening itself.

I recently spoke with Marty Wingate, a garden writer and speaker, and Barbara Dehn, a nurse practitioner specializing in women’s health, about just how good gardening is for bone health. Marty and Barbara will be leading a seminar on “Gardening for Good Health” tomorrow at the San Francisco Flower and Garden Show, but they were nice enough to give me a brief preview.


Essential Elements for Good Bone Health

With 10 million people in the U.S. having osteoporosis, a disease causing bones to become brittle and more susceptible to breaks, and another 34 million estimated to be at increased risk for getting it, it’s important to make sure we're getting the three essential elements for good bone health: 1) calcium, 2) vitamin D, and 3) weight-bearing exercise.
What I didn't know until speaking to Barbara and Marty is that gardening is a perfect fit for the kind of exercise our bones need. A recent study showed that women who garden received greater benefits to their bone health than those taking an aerobics or dance class. Barbara advises that exercising for bone health doesn’t have to be intense--you don’t even need to break a sweat. Just about everything we do in the garden--kneeling to pull weeds, pushing a lawn mower, or even just walking around to see what’s blooming--is the kind of weight-bearing exercise that builds better bones.
And while the most important thing is that you garden, rather than what you garden, Barbara suggests that it doesn’t hurt to plant some calcium-rich veggies like broccoli or bok choy while you’re at it.


Vitamin D for Healthy Bones

But one of the most crucial yet often overlooked factors for strong bones is getting the recommended amount of Vitamin D (at least 800-1000 international units a day), which helps your body absorb calcium. As Americans have increased their use of sunscreen and decreased the amount of time they spend outside overall, our intake of Vitamin D from sunshine has diminished. That leaves our bones more vulnerable, and while it may decrease our risk of skin cancer, there are concerns that it may increase the risk of certain other cancers. Instead, Barbara suggests going outside with arms and legs uncovered and unprotected for the first 15 minutes, and then applying sunscreen for the remainder of the time outdoors. (Darker-skinned women may need more than 15 minutes.)
While bone loss is a greater concern for women, whose bones lose density as women lose estrogen, men are not immune to the problem. Although men naturally experience less significant bone loss, steroids and other medications they may be taking can decrease bone density for them as well.
For more information, check out and the National Osteoporosis Foundation.


  1. Anonymous8:06 AM

    Hi Claire,

    I enjoyed your post "Building Good Bones in the Garden." It's important for readers to know that practicing safe body mechanics in the garden moves from important to essential if one has been diagnosed with osteoporosis.

    The number one cause of vertebral compression fractures in people with osteoporosis is forward bending at the waist in simple, everyday activities.

    In gardening we want avoid curving the spine forward, which we so commonly do when we are weeding or deadheading, for example.

    Instead, we want to keep the spine straight at all times, and the head aligned over the chest, chest aligned over the pelvis. Bend with the legs, work on hands and knees, bring your body down to where you are working, or bring your work up close to you.

    Enjoy "Gardening for Good Health."


    Rachael R Resch, MS PT

  2. Hi Rachael,

    You make a really good point. Marty and Barbara had mentioned the importance of good body mechanics when I spoke to them, but somehow I ended up leaving that out of the post. You'd think I'd know better considering how many times I've ended up with sore muscles or joints from some of the bonehead moves I've made while gardening. Thank goodness my bones are strong! No breaks yet!


  3. Anonymous8:18 AM

    yet another reason to spend more time in the garden!! That's great news.


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