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Gardening when you're not yet in shape

This spring, follow these tips to avoid injuring yourself

By Linda Melone, CSCS for Next Avenue

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Warmer weather and the smell of spring in the air provides major motivation to get outside and dig in the garden — an enjoyable exercise that doesn’t involve a treadmill. Pushing a mower, pulling weeds, digging holes and carrying soil require the use of muscle groups in the entire body. But if you’ve been lounging around for most of the winter, all that bending, digging and planting can wreak havoc on your body, especially when you’re over 50.

Laying the groundwork

“You need to know your limitations,” says Matthew Cauliffe, physical therapist with Professional Physical Therapy, which has locations in the New York metropolitan area. “You’ll want to avoid any activities that aggravate pain. And if you do not regularly perform heavy lifting, bending or squatting, you should begin easy and progress as tolerated.”

Gardening can be hard on the neck, back and knees, says Dr. Jonathan Saluta, an orthopedic surgeon at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles.

“It helps to change positions and take frequent rest breaks,” he says. In addition, to prevent stress on the back and knees, sit on a stool instead of kneeling and use a back support if you’ll be lifting heavy items, such as bags of potting soil, Saluta suggests. “And be sure to wear proper shoes to prevent foot cuts and abrasions, and gloves to prevent hand and finger injuries,” he adds.

Also, keep an eye out for dangers around the garden that could cause falls, such as holes, steep slopes, loose dirt, tree roots and stones.

Good form is important

Consider simple modifications to avoid common aches and pains and avoid injury, says Cauliffe. “Be sure to use proper bending and lifting form,” he advises. Bend at the hips and maintain proper alignment to protect your back. Use your legs to lift, not your back.

Knee mats also help you garden more comfortably for longer periods of time, says Michele Olson, principal researcher at the Auburn University at Montgomery Kinesiology Laboratory. “Also. alternate the knee on which you are squatting. If you have been squatting with your left knee back, change it to the right,” she notes.

And be sure to use clippers with the correct size grip. Smaller grips are easier on the hands and wrists, says Olson.

Prepare first

To get ready to garden, warm up as you would for any exercise session, says Olson.

This can include:

  • Standing knee raises: walk in place and bring knees up high
  • Extend arms out to the sides, palms up, and circle arms backward and forward
  • Lace fingers together, bring them out in front of you, palms facing away from you, and stretch out your hands and fingers
  • Do wrist circles
  • Practice walking lunges: Stand with hands on hips, abs engaged (tightened) and head up. Step forward with one foot and lower your body until both knees, front and back, are in a right angle (or as much as your fitness abilities allow); raise up and step and lunge forward with the other leg; repeat this walking and lunging motion for 15 to 20 reps to warm up legs and glutes.

Stretch afterward

After your gardening workout, take time to stretch your muscles, says Olson. Some good ways:

  • Stretch your legs: place a leg on a lawn chair and hinge at hips to stretch hamstrings and low back
  • Hug yourself to stretch your shoulders and upper back
  • If you have arthritis in your fingers or hands, ice them — throw some ice in the kitchen sink, fill a quarter of the way with very cold water and submerge for five minutes.

Lastly, be sure to stay adequately hydrated by drinking extra water and avoiding alcoholic beverages or sugary drinks, which can further dehydrate you. Take frequent breaks in the shade to give your body a chance to recover, and stop working if you feel breathless or become dizzy, nauseous or develop a headache or rapid pulse.

Enjoy the fruits of your labor!

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