Keeping Fit for Gardening
Gardening is an excellent activity for our health providing; exercise, free air, brain engagement of various types, relaxation, opportunities to contemplate, share and celebrate.
The act of gardening can be rather physically demanding. Even though that’s one great reason to do it- it helps keep us fit, it can also be a cause of injury especially if you are an occasional gardener; doing gardening jobs as they need but not physically fit for those jobs. For example weeding, pruning the roses are some of those seasonal gardening jobs that often create back pain because we end up doing activities (lots of bending and lifting) that we are not doing in our daily lives, and not do any countering movements when we are doing those jobs. Problems also arise when we do too much in one go.
Mobility for gardening
Below we cover some ways to maintain your mobility to that assist keeping your muscles up to the tasks of gardening. Basically we need to keep muscles active in ways that are similar if not the same to the ways our muscles are used in gardening. It’s a case of use it or lose it and the use it has to be a couple of times per week to keep our muscles strong and moving well. These exercises have many benefits that help in everyday life as they aim to keep your spine mobile and your lifting and carrying muscles strong. They may well add a spring in your step.
Though there are lots of exercises to choose from the ones featured are mainly standing to replicate the body forms that we use in gardening. This follows the SAID principle of fitness, Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands; if you do something frequently then you get better at it. In this case our body adapts and we become stronger more agile and in our case gardening task become easier. Regular exercise is going to keep your body fit for gardening.
Below are suggestions for some exercises that cover some of the regions and movements that specifically affect home gardeners. Please seek medical advice before doing any new form of exercise. The exercises descriptions are brief and act as a reminder only for those who attended the information session.
- Do only as much as you can do easily. If it hurts, stop
- If you can’t get yourself out of situation easily don’t put yourself in there.
- If you have a pre-existing injury, be cautious and seek help.
- Apply common sense to all gardening task, and get assistance when you need it.
- Break up long periods of bending
- with other activities that bend you the other way
- by doing task that use different muscles
- by taking a walk
- by stretching to counter those muscles being used
Shoulder, elbows and wrists
Gardening involves lots of fine wrist and elbow movements in such task as pruning, lifting carrying planting, pulling things out. Our shoulders have to be strong and our upper backs mobile for all those jobs above our heads and which require a long reach.
Exercises for keeping wrists, forearms and shoulders strong
- Make a firm fist, hold then stretch out your fingers (builds wrist strength for pruning)
- In a chair, grip edge of chair and try to lift yourself up. Hold for as long as you can with your face relaxed (replicates carrying heavy weights)
- In a chair, grip knees and try to pull your knees forwards as you try to lean your torso back yourself up. Hold for as long as you can with your face relaxed (replicates carrying heavy weights)
- Arms by your sides, squeeze armpits to hip and arms into body (strengthens shoulder and trunk lifting heavy weights)
- Bend arms to 90◦, elbows by torso, pull shoulders to hips and squeeze arms into body, then try to rotate upper arms backwards (strengthens shoulder and trunk lifting heavy weights)
- Arms straight in front of you (or against a solid object) and push whilst keeping shoulders down (replicates pushing heavy object).
Exercises for gaining and maintaining shoulders, elbows and wrists flexibility
Countering lots of bending with arms forwards whilst gardening
- Rotate the wrists in circles clockwise and counter clockwise
- Arms straight by your sides, rotate upper arms outwards (externally) and stretch into fingers
- Interlace hands behind back and squeeze shoulder blades together
- Lift one arm forwards and up in the air, the other arm besides your torso palm into thigh. Push up with upper arm and press down with lower arm.
Gardening task of lifting, carrying, bending, shifting pots, bags of soils, preparing garden beds etc., all involve our back, which needs to be strong and mobile. Really it’s the torso that we are addressing here which includes core stabilising exercises too.
Exercises for keeping back strong
- Hands on back of hips, lengthen your spine, then lean backwards. Hold for as long as you can with your face relaxed
- Standing up, pull in lower abdomen and move top of hips backwards with abdominal muscles. Hold for as long as you can with your face relaxed (for supporting back before lifting or bending)
- Exercises for gaining and maintaining back flexibility
- Interlock fingers in front of body. Pull in lower abdomen and move top of hips and spine backwards with abdominal muscles
- Interlock hands behind back, lengthen spine and look up lengthening whole spine as you do
- Place on hand to side of leg and lean into that hand to side bend. Raise other arm forwards and up if you wish, reaching up with upper arms and pushing down with lower arm
- Place hands on hips or by your sides and twist from centre of chest
Some muscles of the legs affect the hip and spinal positions, and if there is extra tension in any of these they can have a negative impact the back muscles. For some people stretching the muscles of the legs will help keep their back more mobile.
Front of the thigh stretch
- Standing tall, step one leg back to the point that you can keep the back long and hips level. Raise back heel off, try to flatten lower back. Hold for a minute or so.
Back of the thigh stretch
- Facing a wall or back of chair, place hands on for support. Step one leg back and place heel on the floor, front leg is bent. Straighten back. Hold for a minute or so.
Knees and ankles
Exercises for keeping knees and ankles strong
Tighten all the muscles around the knee joints by:
- Pulling knee caps up
- Bending knees slightly
- Squeezing knees in a little (watch out if your knock knee already)
- Hold to feel muscles firm around the knees.
To build strength in the ankles and better balance, firstly as above for the knees
- Pull knee caps up
- Bend knees slightly
- Squeeze knees in a little
- Grip with toes and raise heels off the ground.
Relevant to gardening is to then add bending the knees and lifting and lowering to maintain your ability to squat and come up safely.
Whilst in the garden
Especially after lots of bending, stretch the spine all directions in a quick sequence by:
- Interlocking your fingers above your head (or as near as you can), lift the spine tall, then bend sideways, backwards and finally a little twist.
- Interlock your hands behind your back and look you as frequently as you can.
Most importantly enjoy your gardening!
Article by Shannan Davis – yoga teacher and keen gardener