Get Ready to Garden

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The sight of blossoming flowers and lush greenery is certainly a boost for the spirit, but gardening’s many health benefits go further than that. All that lifting, digging, carrying, planting and moving around in general is good for your health. The physical activity helps to maintain a healthy weight and reduce the risk of a whole myriad of diseases.

Now that it’s spring it’s tempting to jump right in, but along with those health benefits come some risks for illness and injury that could actually keep you out of your garden. While you’re planting your flower beds and starting your seedlings, you should also be thinking about these protective prep measures.

Get your shots

Before you grab your gardening tools, check to make sure that you’ve had a tetanus vaccination within the last ten years. Many adults forget to get their booster shots, and as a result they may not have enough protective antibodies in their system.

What’s the danger? Clostridium tetani, the bacteria that causes tetanus, lives and thrives in soil — especially soil that’s rich in organic matter like manure. It can enter the skin through even a smallest cut, like a prick on your finger or a scrape from a sharp tool, and start to produce a potentially deadly neurotoxin in the body.

While tetanus isn’t common, it can be fatal in rare cases. On average, only four cases are diagnosed each year, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), and most cases can successfully be treated with antibiotics and a booster shot if caught early enough. However, in 2008 three people died from tetanus on Vancouver Island alone. All of them were over the age of 50 and none of them had a tetanus vaccination in the previous 10 – 20 years. (For details, see the Vancouver Sun).

Not surprisingly, officials in British Columbia issued a stern warning for gardeners: Make sure your shots are up to date and wear gloves when you garden to protect your hands — especially if you already have cuts or broken skin. (For more information, see Healthy gardening).

Warm up to it

Chances are you didn’t wake up this morning thinking “I’m going to run five miles today!” when you’ve been hibernating all winter. However, a day in the garden is just as risky when it comes to injuries caused by overexertion — like muscle strains and sore backs. To protect yourself, experts recommend:

Get in shape first. Before you get active in the garden, get regular physical activity back into your routine to get in shape and improve your endurance. Working in those strength training and flexibility exercises will also help improve strength and balance as well as protecting the joints.

Warm up. Before you dig in, start with slow stretches of at least 15-20 seconds each. Start with some light activity like a walk around the block or less strenuous tasks.

Pace yourself. It’s tempting to tackle the garden all at once, but you should listen to your body. Slow the pace and take a break when you’re tired, and keep an eye out for any warning signs of heat stroke or heart attack.

Overall, experts warn that people should treat gardening like any other type of exercise: you have to work your way up to longer, more intense sessions.

Dress right

In addition to gloves, there are a few other essentials you should have in your gardening wardrobe:

Sturdy shoes: The garden isn’t the place for flip-flops. Sturdy, supportive and comfortable shoes are the key to protecting you feet from injuries — like stepping on a gardening tool, slipping in wet grass or soil, or straining your muscles from improper support.

Clothing that covers: A pair of jeans or long pants, shirt or blouse and socks in your shoes will guard your skin against scrapes and cuts, but it will also shield you from harmful UV rays and protect you from insect bites and stings.

Wide brimmed hat: Sunscreen is a must, but you’ll want to add a hat too. It will shield the areas that sunscreen may not cover like the delicate skin around your eyes and your inner eye. A baseball hat or visor won’t do the whole job — you’ll want coverage for your neck and ears as well.

Mask for mixing soil: Definitely not the most fashionable accessory for outdoors, but it sure beats inhaling particles of the soil, vermiculite and other soil mediums that you’re working with.

Insect repellent: Don’t let the bugs bite… If you’re out in the garden between dusk and dawn, you may want to add some insect repellent to your list. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends using products that are registered with the EPA and contain active ingredients like DEET, Picaridin (or “Bayrepel”) or lemon eucalyptus oil. (See their Q&A for more information on Insect Repellent Use and Safety).

If you’re using power tools, you’ll also want to make sure you’re wearing the right safety gear, like ear and eye protection.

Keep it natural

With any kind of activity, technique is everything:

Use the right tools. Use the right tools to clip, sheer and prune to cut down on jarring and stress. Try out the tools before you buy, and purchase the best quality you can afford. Look for ergonomic tools to make gripping and motion more natural, and try to match the size of the tool to the size of your hands. (For some ideas, see Great garden gadgets).

And when you’re not using them, make sure your tools are put away or stay out of your way to avoid stepping on them, tripping over cords, running them over with a lawnmower or tempting kids and pets.

Avoid the twist and shout. Other sources of injury in the garden include actions we’re not used to — like twisting and reaching. Keep your work close at hand and in front of you so you’re not overextending yourself, and avoid any situations where you have to twist or move your body in strange ways.

If reaching is an issue, try container gardening instead. Boxes and pots of plants can be easily reached sitting in a chair or wheelchair. You can also grow flowers, herbs and vegetables on a patio, doorstep or window box where you have easier access.

Switch it up. Alternate between tasks so your body won’t suffer the stress of repetition. For instance, take a break from digging and do some watering instead – or go refill your water bottle to ensure you stay hydrated.

Don’t overload. There are even limits on how much fit people should life. How much is too much? Occupational Health Standards note that safe lifting loads for men shouldn’t exceed 64 pounds for men and 28 pounds for women. Get help when you need it, and use a wheel barrow to cart things around your yard.

Gardening is an art form, but it’s also a lot of hard work. These precautions will help make sure you can stay safe and healthy — and keep those fresh flowers and produce at their best.

Health Canada: Garden Safety
CDC: Gardening Health and Safety Tips

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