Workout in the garden

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Bend and stretch, stand, reach and repeat. The latest aerobic class craze? No, these are the average moves in a different kind of workout – gardening.

Tending those flower beds isn’t just a matter of puttering about with a watering can. It is a great activity to keep you fit and flexible, and it’s a great a toning exercise. The bending and stretching work your muscles, giving them added flexibility, strength and endurance.

Thunder Bay Master Gardener, Linda Adamson, remembers the day she took up running with her husband. He had been running every day for a while, and she thought she wouldn’t be up to the challenge. But, because of her daily gardening, she was able to keep up right from the start. She knows gardening can be a workout, but “it’s exercise that I never think of as exercise because I enjoy it so much.”

Prepare yourself
But to get the most out of it, you have to prepare yourself, and know what you’re doing. Adamson knows the risks and benefits of gardening better than most. Aside from being a Master Gardener, she’s also a physiotherapist in the arthritis unit at St. Joseph’s hospital in Thunder Bay.

Shsays gardening can offer endless enjoyment, but gardeners should remember their limits, and pace themselves.

Break up tasks
Adamson says it’s important not to try to do all your neglected gardening in one day. Spread it over several to ease the strain. And while you are working, be sure to vary your tasks frequently. Don’t do all your kneeling or bending in one go.

“The best thing is to break up the task, so you aren’t doing anything for more than a half an hour,” she says. Always make the work easy on yourself by preparing your workspace in advance, and finding easier ways to do things that need doing. 

“Do the most you can standing up, that really minimizes injury,” says Adamson.

Weekend gardeners
The Canadian Physiotherapy Association warns that weekend gardeners should be realistic, and try not to work their bodies beyond what they are capable of and used to.

Do your lifting from the knees, with your back held straight. Lift only small amounts at a time, and squat, rather than bend over.

Remember that repetitive strain isn’t just for computer work. Change your position frequently, and do a reverse stretch if you stay in the same position for a long time.

Bend or flex your muscle in the opposite direction to the way your muscle has been working. Hold for 10 to 20 seconds, and release. Repeat this a few times, and shake out your arms and legs. The Canadian Physiotherapy Association website offers tips on stretching.

Use right tools
Gardening also has its own equipment, and getting the right clippers for a gardener is just as important as finding the right shoe for a jogger. Adamson says the right tool can make the difference for how you’re going to feel the next day.

Think of trying to wrest a small hand around too-large clippers, or using a tiny spade to do a shovel’s work. Using muscles to compensate adds stress and increases the likelihood of injury.

Prepare for the job you have to do, and choose the right tools for it. Take advantage of wheelbarrows, knee pads and ladders. They’re not too much trouble if they prevent painful injury or lengthy rehabilitation.

Adamson recommends long-handled tools, such as watering sticks, so you don’t have to stretch, and bent-handled rakes that minimize the bending and twisting involved in clearing leaves.

She says trying to find the right tool for the job is getting easier all the time. Garden supply manufacturers are inventing and refining tools all the time.

Better equipment
The equipment in stores now is much more consumer-friendly than your old shovel. 

“I think industry has responded, because more and more people are getting older. And the people who garden do tend to be older, and if a tool can do it for you, in the long run, it is worthwhile to buy the tool,” she says.

She speaks from experience. So far, Adamson’s only gardening injury was tendonitis in her thumb, from lugging bags of manure.

“So I got one of those wheelbarrows that has two wheels, so it’s more balanced.”

The wheelbarrow keeps her from lifting too much, and the extra wheel keeps the wheelbarrow from tipping. Now, when she has a load to move: “I just lift it out of my vehicle, and into the wheelbarrow, and move it to where I want it.”

Don’t ignore injury
If injury does occur, don’t ignore it. You may pay for it with more than next-day stiffness. One of Adamson’s clients developed shoulder tendonitis from raking, and that didn’t settle down for almost a month.

So if you feel pain, stop what you’ve been doing, and try some gentle reverse stretches. If the pain persists, Adamson recommends the hot and cold treatment. 

“If your knee swells up, put ice on it. If it’s muscle strain or your muscles feel stiff, a hot bath, or heat wherever necessary.” But Adamson says you shouldn’t rely on self-treatment forever.

Find alternatives
“If it lasts more than four days, you have probably done something significant, and you should consult a health professional,” she says.

If an injury is recurring, Adamson says you should find another way to do your gardening, or get someone else to do the activities causing the injury.

There are many ways to garden that don’t have to cause pain. Container boxes, and raised beds can almost eliminate the bending and stretching that is endemic to yard gardening.

As with any exercise program, tailor it to your needs, and make it part of your daily routine. Few other activities offer such sweet-smelling rewards.