How to - The Healthy Gardener

Healthy gardening habits

Take care of your body while digging, weeding and planting

Think gardening is a gentle hobby? This misconception can sometimes lead to a long list of unnecessary complaints—sore shoulders, neck strain, repetitive stress injuries and aching muscles. “No pain, no gain” applies to rock-hard abs, not rock gardens.
Weeding, digging, raking and pruning have all the elements of a gym workout and should be approached with the same respectful caution, says Sue Nash, a physical trainer from Guelph, Ont., who specializes in posture and body mechanics.

Whether you're a weekend warrior or prefer to garden in small daily doses, it's easy to care for your body while tending your plants. Just follow Nash's Before, During and After tips for pain-free gardening. The only ache you'll feel is pride.

Regardless of the temperature outdoors, you need to get the blood flowing and the joints warmed up. “Your warm-up should mimic what you're going to do in the garden,” advises Nash. "This is especially important because it alerts both your muscles and brain by sending the message that these muscles will be working.”

If you'll be pulling weeds or pruning, do arm circles. Digging? Gentle lunges and squats. Mowing the lawn? Take a brisk walk around the block or jog on the spot.

Over-exertion causes most garden-related injuries. Even if you're moving modest molehills, rather than mountains, give your body frequent breaks. Fortunately, when it comes to physical activity, a change is as good as a rest, so remember to switch things up.

• Work both sides: We tend to use our dominant side. This puts added strain on joints, tendons and muscles. To prevent injury when digging or raking, switch sides from time to time. Strike a balance by keeping count. If you begin to tire, switch more often.
• Break it up: Alternate tasks every 20 minutes to prevent strain. Rake, plant, water and weed in rotation. However, if you're dedicated to a specific task, take a break every 20 minutes and stretch the muscle groups you're using to relieve muscles and joints.
•Watch your back: Whether you're bending over to pull weeds, kneeling to plant bulbs, shoveling earth or raking, keep your back in a neutral position, with shoulders down and stomach muscles tight. Over time, stooping will weaken your back, leaving you vulnerable to injury.
•Cushion the blow: Prolonged kneeling puts pressure on the kneecaps, decreasing circulation. Don't wait for arthritis to strike before using a cushion or garden stool. And remember to keep your back straight.
• Slide your shoulders down: Whether you're working above your head or with your arms extended, make a conscious effort to keep your shoulders away from your ear lobes. Hiking up your shoulders can cause neck strain.

Before rewarding yourself with a cold drink or hot shower, do a cool-down of gentle stretching to help prevent sore muscles. Yoga, TaiChi or Qigong provide a perfect wind-down and can be done right on the lawn. If you're not familiar with these practices, any type of gentle stretching will work.

Charmian Christie is an avid gardener and home cook. When she's not digging in the dirt, she's charting her culinary adventures on her blog, Christie's Corner.

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