Leaves! Raking for Health (yours and your garden’s)

It’s getting cold here in the Hudson Valley (23 degrees this morning) and it’s really starting to feel like winter. The weather has been not only cold but rainy for the past few days, so I didn’t mind this morning because it was bright and sunny – a good day to tackle a chore I’d been putting off for weeks – raking leaves. As a child, this was one of my favorite activities (well actually, “helping” my parents rake and then jumping into the piles of leaves on my hoppity-horse). Now, I tend to dread it, despite the fact that I usually feel good after. In general, I enjoy putting the garden to bed for the winter. Cleaning up, deadheading (though I always leave some seedheads for the birds and for “decoration” – they look beautiful in winter, especially poking out from a blanket of snow with little snow-hats of their own), mulching, and dreaming of next year’s garden. Raking is a big part of that. And it’s good exercise!

An article in Martha Stewart Living from way back in March 2007 (“Reap the Benefits of Gardening,” by Peter Jaret) discusses the psychological and physical health benefits of gardening. Raking is one of many gardening activities that, if done for 30 minutes a day, can increase metabolic rate, reduce blood pressure, improve cholesterol levels, tone muscles, improve flexibility, and even improve cardiovascular fitness – enough to reduce the risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes. Gardening, including raking, burns between 265-415 calories per hour, depending on the level of activity (pushing a hand-mower or raking leaves will be more strenuous than light weeding; for comparison, jogging burns about 430 calories per hour). And that’s just the physical exercise. The psychological benefits of working outdoors are myriad (and, of course, they’re all connected anyway). Many horticultural therapy programs include raking; it’s something most of us have done at some point in our lives, and often brings back fond memories – in addition to the physical activity, the smell and sound of leaves is very evocative and can trigger positive memories and feelings – which is particularly important for people with dementia.

And if all that isn’t enough to make you want to grab a rake and go to it, remember that the old-school way of dealing with leaves is a lot better for the environment than standing behind a leaf-blower, using expensive gasoline, inhaling fumes and going deaf while enraging all of your neighbors in the process.
As with all garden work, take care not to overdo it by lifting too much, working more than you feel up to, or exposing yourself to the elements (sun, heat, wind, cold) for too long. The Martha Stewart Living article (link above) is chock-full of good information, including pointers on lessening the risk of strain or injury while you’re getting that good garden work-out.