Hate the gym. Love the garden.
I consider my garden my outdoor workout space, filled with birdsongs and plant smells instead of grunts and sweaty bodies. I feel the stretch in my muscles when I reach up to prune or lunge forward to pull weeds in awkward places. I lift weights when I haul bags of compost or manure or carry 2-gallon watering cans that weigh 7 pounds full. I get an aerobic workout when I rake leaves or turn over soil. I’m maintaining good balance as I work atop rockery walls and terraced ledges.
The National Institutes of Health lists gardening 30 to 45 minutes a day three to five times a week as moderate activity that can reduce obesity, comparable to bicycling five miles or walking two miles in 30 minutes. Other benefits include increased flexibility, stronger joints, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and lowered risk of diabetes and osteoporosis. Calories burned during 30 minutes of gardening range from 51 watering the lawn and 146 raking or bagging leaves to 187 mowing with a motorized push mower, 170 digging, spading or tilling (for a person weighing 150 lbs.).
Relying on gardening as a principal mode of exercise poses a couple of problems, however. One is inconsistency. Beyond the fact that we do little between November and February and during rainy weeks, we may burn hundreds of calories one day preparing a whole vegetable garden and very few the next day picking chickweed. To even out an exercise routine, incorporating a program of regular aerobic exercise such as climbing stairs, cycling, jogging, brisk walking or swimming might be necessary.
The other problem is obsessive gardening. A lot of us want to make a section of the garden perfect, ignoring an aching back, splattering raindrops, hands bleeding from rose thorns, or cries from children or pets that they’re hungry. We overdo it on sunny days to make up for the rainy days stuck indoors. We do too much of one activity, and we risk injuring ourselves.
Wanting to learn how to maximize the benefits of gardening as exercise and minimize the chance of injury, I talked with two seasoned local gardeners and two experts on ergonomics and body mechanics, both of whom also tend their own gardens.
Joan Helbacka is a Master Gardener who has written columns on “Safety Tips for Gardeners” and given talks on “Safe and Sane Gardening Practices” for the WSU Extension Master Gardener Program. A gardener for 40 years, she now tends a one-acre yard in Renton.
Her main piece of advice: Don’t feel you need to do everything in one weekend. “Instead of overdoing it on weekends, those of us who have office jobs might benefit greatly, physically and mentally, by doing a bit of gardening after work. This would avoid the weekend athlete syndrome and keep us fitter.”
Although she doesn’t have a pre-gardening exercise regimen, she does walk around her whole yard before beginning work to warm up and see what most needs attention. “Tackle the heavy chores when you’re fresh in the morning; save the deadheading and other easy tasks for the evening,” she suggests. Just as skiers are often injured when they try to take “one last run” when they’re tired, gardeners “risk tweaking [their] backs spreading that last wheelbarrow of mulch or having [the] saw slip on the last fruit tree to be pruned.”
She notes that she’s more conscious now of avoiding injuries from repetitive motions. “I’ve changed from being single-minded to going from place to place in the garden and doing no more than one hour of one thing. If you’re weeding, especially if it’s chilly, get up from time to time. Don’t stay in one position too long.”
She wears gloves to improve her grip on tools and avoid hand cramping and makes sure she uses sharp tools, carrying a sharpener around in her pocket.
Seattle Times gardening columnist Valerie Easton, author of The New Low-Maintenance Garden (2009), started gardening as a little girl and is now in her 50s. She recently downsized to a flat Whidbey Island garden with lots of raised beds and screens — one that she can take care of by herself.
“I used to garden full-tilt all day,” she says. “Now I’ll take a break, have more frequent interruptions.”
She has practiced yoga since her early 20s and now teaches it. “Yoga makes you more aware (of your movements); it keeps you limber and strong,” she says. She does yoga every day, and carries some of the principles into her garden — including keeping knees bent and tightening core muscles when lifting, being conscious of how her body is aligned and not reaching beyond her boundaries. She’s never had a back injury gardening.
She is careful when she is lifting heavy things like sacks of manure, often choosing to use a wheelbarrow. She holds sacks and other items close to her body, a basic ergonomic principle for all types of lifting.
Emily Doubt, a chiropractor at Roosevelt Chiropractic in Seattle, endorses the same lifting techniques, and thinks yoga or Pilates is beneficial for overall health and for building core strength for gardening. She has also been gardening since she was a child, now tending a small garden in the Green Lake neighborhood. She applies what she learned in chiropractic school to her gardening and other activities and is preparing a talk and demonstration on ergonomic gardening for Seattle Tilth.
As a chiropractor she sees gardening injuries, but not necessarily the ones we’d expect. The worst culprit is weeding — “you’re crouched over for an hour or two hours, and the prolonged posture of looking down can injure your neck.”
In general, “the lower back and the neck get the most wear and tear,” Doubt says. “And whatever happens to the shoulder — from overreaching, torquing the arms or lifting heavy shovels — happens to the neck. She recommends stretching the lower back, hamstrings and calves before gardening, including using the “Downward-Facing Dog” yoga pose and moving the neck in all directions.
“As far as strength goes, gardening is a strenuous activity, and people should think of it that way,” Doubt says. “A runner who hasn’t run for a few months doesn’t say, ‘I’m going to run a marathon.’ They build up to it, and run a mile and then two miles. But gardeners have this mentality, ‘I’m going to weed everything.’”
Noting that muscles begin to atrophy after three weeks of not doing an activity, she advocates applying the rule of 10 — increasing your time and intensity by 10 percent each time you do an activity and going back to the previous level if there’s pain. Especially if you’re out of shape, it’s best to reduce the weight of something before you move it — such as dividing a sack of compost into two bags.
Before I had a bout with sciatica two years ago, I thought nothing of hanging that 7-pound watering bucket off one arm or doing all of my shoveling with my right foot. I’m not alone in that tendency. “We’re asymmetric beings,” Doubt says. “We favor one hand and side over the other. We build muscle mass on one side, and it pulls our spine out of alignment.”
Now I’m more conscious of carrying things close to the center of my body, using both hands, and bending my knees to lift. Doubt says we should think of “bringing things close to our core” for all gardening tasks, not just lifting. “For example, if you’re pruning, get close to the branch you’re cutting. Get a step stool so that you’re not constantly stretching the neck upward and bending your arms overhead.”
We should also alternate different tasks to avoid overusing one set of muscles on a particular day and switch sides of our bodies when we are shoveling, raking or weed-whacking, Doubt says.
Deborah Read, an expert in ergonomics and founder and president
of ErgoFit Consulting, endorses many of the same principles. She gardens
in West Seattle and teaches ergonomic gardening techniques to landscapers
and groundskeepers through her company. As this lifelong gardener enters
her 40s, she has become more conscious of protecting her back and knees.
The biggest mistakes Read sees are lifting while bending or twisting, reaching out too far while doing tasks like raking, and staying in a bent-over, forward-leaning position too long without breaks.
“It’s a great idea to change your posture or muscle use every 15 minutes or so,” Read says. If you’ve been bent over weeding for 15 minutes, stop and prune a waist-high rosebush for 15 minutes. Then go back to your weeding. You may find you need to stand up after every two minutes of forward leaning or bending or kneeling.” She also recommends alternating sides of the body, especially when weeding, raking or shoveling. When weeding, she assumes a three-point crawl position in which she uses one arm to pull weeds and the other arm to support her upper body weight.
Because so many injuries can be caused by lifting things that are too heavy for us, Read suggests considering alternatives: “Is there a different way to move it where it needs to go? Slide it on a tarp? Use a wheeled piece of equipment? Push with your legs? If you must lift it, decide if you can tip the object up on one end to get the load higher off the ground. Once you’ve decided it’s safe to lift, get your hips as close to your hands as possible, particularly in regards to distance out away from your body.”
Read places great importance on using laborsaving tools such as folding wheelbarrows, power gear pruners, pot lifters and Garden Weasel cultivators. She suggests that clients who use vibrating power tools limit a session to 30 minutes and look for low-vibration frequencies. To reduce injuries to the hand and lower arm, reduce the strength of your grip on trowels, forks, shovels and pruners, making sure the shaft is a comfortable diameter, adding some kind of slip-resistant material and perhaps adding a leverage strap that wraps across the top of the forearm. Pruners, loppers and other cutting tools should have ratchet-style mechanisms, and all cutting tools should be kept sharp. Tools with extended handles can reduce reaching and bending.
Finally, Read warns against working through any pain. “Don’t get trapped into the ‘Oh, it’ll just take a couple more minutes; I can make it’ kind of thinking,” she says. “Pain is a warning signal to you; respect this natural protection system in your body. Stop what you’re doing and do something else that uses a different body position.”
With these ideas, I hope to keep gardening safely into my 80s, as my mother-in-law does, or even beyond. We've all heard that gardening keeps you young. One day, I may even be able to echo a lament my husband’s great-aunt made in a recent Christmas card: “I get tired now after four hours in the garden. I’m starting to slow down.”
Garden Your Way to Health and Fitness by Bunny Guinness and Jacqueline Knox (Timber Press, 2008). British garden designer and British physiotherapist outline exercise programs, emphasizing Pilates and strengthening core muscles, along with injury-prevention techniques and ergonomic design principles.
Gardener’s Yoga: Bend & Stretch, Dig & Grow by Veronica D’Orazio (Sasquatch Books, 2005). Colorful 64-page guide describes and illustrates 21 yoga positions that can help warm up the spine and gently engage the hips, back and neck before gardening, help with standing and balancing while working, and relax and elongate tired muscles after a gardening workout.
Get Fit Through Gardening: Advice, Tips, and Tools for Better Health by Jeffrey Restuccio (Random House, 2008). Organic gardener and martial arts expert designs a complete body workout by gardening 30 minutes a day three times a week and introduces eight stances to strengthen back and knees.
Gardener’s Fitness: Weeding Out the Aches & Pains by Barbara Pearlman (Taylor Trade Publishing, 1999). Fitness expert writes an easy-to-follow manual including conditioning exercises, postural guidance for moving correctly and safely, therapeutic stretches to relieve discomfort and a variety of gentle exercises designed to relax tired muscles and restore energy after laboring in the garden.
Yoga for Gardeners, produced by Gail Dubinsky, M.D. DVD by soft-tissue orthopedic surgeon and yoga instructor demonstrates six yoga sequences with essential basic postures focusing on core strength, basic stretches, and strength in the limbs and back, making application to specific garden tasks. $24.99 at www.rxyoga.com.
“Protect Your Back!” manual. ErgoFit Consulting’s five-level self-guided program emphasizes strengthening and stabilization for the abdominals, gluteals and deep low-back muscles, including a stretching component. $59.95, with $5 off for Seattle Woman readers through June 30, 2011; call 206-938-3294 or e-mail ErgoGirl@ErgoFitConsulting.com.
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