Gardening for Exercise

Many people in the Bay Area are familiar with the idea of ‘Park Prescriptions’. This is a relatively new idea where doctors write a patient’s prescription to visit a park to improve their health. In much the same way, doctors could prescribe gardening to improve a person’s overall health. Gardening has been proven to increase physical fitness and mental capacity while reducing stress and the chances of dementia. As well, vegetable gardening raises better awareness about healthy eating and increases a person’s connection to their environment.

According to Bay Area Monitor, “relaxation and stress reduction could be one of the best benefits. Given that antidepressants are some of the most commonly prescribed medications, a prescription for some flowers, plants or tomatoes might be a refreshing change. Researchers commonly note the positive mental outlook obtained by those participating in gardening [Source: Wakefield, Lombard, Armstrong]. Another great benefit of gardening is that is gives the body a chance to focus on just the garden and drop away from the stressors of yesterday or tomorrow.” I can certainly testify to this. Weeding is one of my favorite gardening activities, it is something that I could do (and have done) for hours at a time squatting, hunched over in the sun or rain, letting my mind focus on the job at hand; and often, these are the times that I connect more with the gardens.

Pushing loaded wheelbarrows on the island keeps volunteers fit. Photo by Diana LaWithout a doubt, gardening on Alcatraz keeps you fit. For many years, we pushed wheelbarrows up the hills, loaded with supplies. We worked tirelessly removing overgrowth and hauling it to compost piles. Now, years later, we haven’t slowed down at all. For calorie counters, simple gardening jobs like weeding, hoeing, and watering burns on average 225 calories an hour. But measuring a good day’s

Yoga stretches on the hillsides. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

work is impossible to put a number to. On the island, there is a gardening job to suit everyone’s ability – weeding and planting on steep slopes gets in some yoga stretches, while turning the compost pile is equilvelant to lifting weights. Just walking up the main road is the same as walking up a 13 story building – and usually, we forget a tool and have to walk back down to the tool room to get it. I guess our mental capacity for remembering all the tools we need still needs improvement.

Turning the compost pile is the same as lifting weights. Photo by Fergal Moran

Many of my volunteers are of retirement age; but they can easily beat a 20-year-old up the steep switchbacks on Alcatraz. I was recently surprised to learn one of my volunteers that leads docent tours was 80! I guessed his age was closer to late 60s.

For island gardeners, they are getting a double dose of healthy goodness – gardening in a National Park! Spring is the perfect time for new beginnings. I encourage you to start your own garden, even a small pot of herbs on a window sill. I’m sure you will notice a difference in your daily life. For the inmate gardeners, I’m positive that they valued the pleasures of gardening. They were the lucky ones that found an escape outside of the prison walls, finding solace in the beauty they created. Elliot Michener, inmate #578, gave a testimony stating “the hillside provided a refuge from disturbances of the prison, the work a release, and it became an obsession. This one thing I would do well…If we are all our own jailers, and prisoners of our traits, then I am grateful for my introduction to the spade and trowel, the seed and the spray can. They have given me a lasting interest in creativity.” Suzanne Shimek, a volunteer with the Lick-Wilmerding High School even said last week that she “had a meditative and peaceful time sifting soil and sorting worms”.

Gardening is such a simple act, that gives so much.

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