Aside from giving you fresh produce, gardening is an excellent way to stay physically fit. An hour of gardening can burn as many calories as a brisk walk. Moreover, gardening requires strength, flexibility, and agility. But if you do not prepare adequately, it can take a toll on your body. Here is how you can get in good gardening shape.
The Health Benefits of Gardening
"Most people think gardening is such a dainty activity," says Lori Turner, assistant professor of health sciences at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. "But, there is actually a lot of weight-bearing motions going on in the garden—digging holes, pulling weeds, pushing a mower, and so on."
Steering Clear of Aches and Pains
So if you want your time outdoors to be productive and injury-free, make sure you do some simple exercises to get your body in shape before the annual dig. Before heading outside, gardeners should strengthen their backs, knees, hands, and wrists—sites of the most common, toil-in-the-soil complaints.
Because gardening is a physical hobby that uses muscles not often used for other activities, Barbara Pearlman, an avid gardener and former dancer, wrote Gardener's Fitness: Weeding Out the Aches and Pains.
Says Pearlman, who lives in Manhattan with her husband and gardens with gusto at their weekend place in Hillsdale, New York, "Hauling heavy rocks, digging, toting tools, dragging the hose, or whacking weeds should not wreak havoc on the body."
Getting in Shape to Garden
Because a good grip is so necessary for virtually all gardening tasks, Pearlman recommends the following hand-strengthening exercises:
- Squeeze a small, soft rubber ball until your hand tires and then relax. Repeat six times. Change hands. Then squeeze the ball between one finger and the thumb, repeating each six times. Shake out your hands after each session.
- Separate your fingers in a stretch for eight seconds, then relax. Repeat 10 times.
- Stretch your arms in front at shoulder level, palms down, and flex the hands upward, feeling the stretch under your arms. Hold for six counts. Drop the hands from the wrists and hold for another six counts. Repeat six times.
" Back pain is the bane of most gardeners' existence," says Pearlman. "But most people do not realize that your abdominal muscles support the back."
To strengthen your stomach and help your back, lie on your back with your knees bent. Put your hands behind your head or relax them at your side. Then contract your abdominal muscles while pressing the small of your back into the floor. Slowly slide both legs forward and try to straighten them as much as possible while maintaining the contractions in your stomach muscles. Repeat six times.
Because of all the lifting, toting, and carrying involved in gardening, it is useful to build up your arm strength. Wall push-ups will help.
Stand facing a wall at arm's length. Put your palms on the wall with your fingers pointing up. Keep your shoulder blades down and your stomach muscles pulled in. Then slowly bend your elbows while taking four counts to lean into the wall. Use another four counts to push your body back away from the wall. Repeat 12 times.
To prevent the fatigue and soreness of an ailment known as "garden elbow and garden arm," Pearlman also suggests beefing up your forearms. Grasp a two- or three-pound (907- or 1,360-gram) weight, place your forearm palm down on a table with the wrist hanging over the edge and with the elbow bent. Slowly—to a count of five—rotate the forearm, turning the palm upward. Return to the starting position and rest for several seconds. Build up to 12 repetitions.
To build up the wrist, use the same weight in the same position, palm up. Bring the wrist toward the ceiling as far as possible and hold for five seconds. Return to the original position and rest for three seconds. Build to 12 repetitions.
Stress on the knees while you garden comes from all directions: front, back, and both sides. When you squat to pick up your tools or push a cart uphill, your knees are constantly being called upon and, sometimes, crawled upon. You will get some relief by wearing kneepads. To strengthen your knees, try some of the following:
- Build the quadriceps—which help support your knees—by standing near a wall or holding onto a support for balance. Your supporting leg should be relaxed with the foot pointed ahead. Bend the other knee so the lower leg is almost at a right angle to its own thigh. Then, slowly straighten the leg by extending the lower leg without lowering the knee. Raise the leg upward six times, then bend it back to the original position. Repeat the sequence four times and then do the same exercise with your other leg.
- Before heading out to the garden in the morning, Pearlman recommends warming up and stretching your knees. One exercise can be done on your bed. Lie on your back, holding one knee to your chest with clasped hands and with the other leg hanging slightly over the bed to stretch for at least 30 seconds. Then change legs.
When you are outside working, rotate your gardening chores so you will not overuse any muscles. Rake for a while, dig turf for a bit, and then pot a few plants.
If you have arthritis, plan to start digging a bit later in the morning. That gives your knees, hands, and other joints adequate time to not only wake up but to loosen up.
Remember, gardening is a contact sport—you will come into contact with rocks, loads of dirt, and other heavy items as well as things with sharp edges and thorns. Wear gloves and long pants and sleeves, if possible. Carry a water bottle with you at all times, and wear a hat.
National Gardening Association
Wild About Gardening
Pearlman B.Gardener's Fitness: Weeding Out the Aches and Pains. Dallas, TX: Taylor; 1999.