I have no doubt that all of you gardeners out there are already dreaming of those plump, juicy tomatoes or gorgeous blossoms of your favorite flowers this summer, and probably champing at the bit to get started on your gardening plans ASAP! Though gardening devotees will be the first to exclaim the powerful psychological benefits of this hobby, not everyone is aware of the myriad physical benefits as well. Here are some statistics that may surprise you, and encourage those who don’t currently garden to join in the fun: 1) according to a large-scale Stockholm study, the risk of heart attack and stroke dropped by 30% in people over 60 who gardened regularly, and 2) another long-term study that followed 3,000 older adults for 16 years showed that daily gardening reduced the incidence of dementia by 36%, with another study estimating the risk reduction to be as much as 47%!
While gardening is an excellent form of low-impact exercise, the joy of it can sometimes be diminished by the incidence of pain – most commonly, back pain. However, this can easily be avoided by following some basic tips, as I have outlined for you here:
- Warm-up! Though most people don’t think of gardening as a competitive sport, taking time to warm-up your body is the first step in preparing your body for a pain-free day in the garden. This can be done easily by spending 10 minutes going for a brisk walk, flowing through your favorite yoga or tai chi sequence, or performing some dynamic stretches before digging in.
- Don’t overdo it! Set modest goals for your day, and break up your work into several manageable sessions.
- Work smarter, not harder! Plan narrow flower beds to decrease reaching excursions, use mulch to fill in spaces between plants to minimize weeds, use a hose instead of a watering can when possible, keep your tools sharpened, and wear a gardener’s tool belt to keep everything handy without having to bend over constantly to pick up your implements.
- Lighten your load! If using a hose is not practical, use a half-filled watering can and make several trips (the extra walking is good for you!). The same can be said for loads of mulch or soil – it is better for your back to haul several smaller loads than to try to manage a heavier load once. Use a wheeled-wagon to transport your heavy bags or buckets when necessary.
- Lift carefully, and use proper body mechanics to minimize the stress on your back. The muscles in your legs are bigger and stronger than the muscles in your back, which are more vulnerable to being strained, especially in flexed positions. Therefore, it follows that you should always try to maintain a long, straight spine, and use your legs to do the work of lifting. Keep your feet wide apart, hinge slightly from the hips, contract the muscles in your core (trunk), keep the load close to your body, and avoid twisting whenever lifting objects.
- Get on the same level as your plants! One way to do this is to raise the level of the plants by building raised beds, using pots on wheeled-casters, or hanging containers from tree branches and overhead hooks. The other way is to get closer to the ground: use thick knee pads or a cushioned kneeling pad to get down onto your hands and knees. Some kneeling pads even have handles that can help you get back onto your feet, or convert the pad into a raised seat by turning the whole thing upside down. To check one out, click here.
- Be ambidextrous! Try doing some things with your non-dominant hand, and switch sides when raking or shoveling to decrease the repetitive stress on your joints. (This is also good brain exercise!)
- Switch it up! Change positions and activities at least every 15 minutes. Take frequent breaks to stand and stretch, drink water, and to walk around admiring your work! Below I have shown some great back extension stretches to counteract the flexion associated with gardening. Try them before, during and after your day in the garden for a healthy back.
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