The sun is shining longer and the trees are starting to bud. As the birds begin to chirp out the first signs of spring, many of us find ourselves heading out to our flower and vegetable gardens. Most people don’t think of gardening as exercise, but believe it or not, gardening provides an excellent opportunity for strength and cardio training.
Stretch to avoid injuries
Before you grab your garden hoe, it is important to remember to stretch first. Yes, I said stretch before you garden. Stretching is our first line of defense against muscle and joint injuries.
Stretching helps keep our muscles flexible. Flexible muscles improve our range of motion in our joints. Tight and shortened muscles are more likely to become injured. Improved joint range of motion helps to keep the joints healthy by moving the natural lubrication around the joint through movement.
Stretching also improves blood flow, which helps to warm the muscles and provide increased oxygen. Increased oxygen helps to decrease lactic acid build-up in the muscles. Lactic acid build-up is what makes our muscles sore. Stretching will help decrease muscle stiffness and cramping when you are done.
The do’s and don’ts of stretching
1. Stretching is best performed after 5-10 minutes of activity. You can start by gathering up your gardening tools. Resist the temptation to carry heavy items out at this time. Heavy items are best saved for after your stretches.
2. Stretch gently and do not bounce. Stretches should be held for at least 30 seconds to allow the muscle fibers time to unwind. Modify your stretch as needed, by either increasing or decreasing the intensity of the stretch to keep it gentle. Stretches should not cause pain or discomfort. A stretch that is causing pain may actually cause injury to the muscle.
3. Keep things simple. Complete four stretches before you begin your gardening. We are more likely to skip our stretching if the routine is too complicated and time-consuming. Complete three repetitions of each stretch to allow the muscles to gradually stretch further. Muscles have a memory and are more likely to remember to stay lengthened when stretches have been repeated. Over time, you will find your muscle flexibility improving.
Some great stretches to complete before gardening include: the standing calf stretch, sitting hamstring stretch, and back stretches (forward and side to side). Shoulder circles forward and back can be completed for 5-10 repetitions but are not held in place as this is for joint lubrication and not muscle stretching.
Gardening to get your cardio
Gardening can provide a good cardio workout depending on the time spent. Hoeing the garden is an especially good cardio workout. Hoe safely by keeping your feet and legs in a lunge position with one leg forward to lessen the stress on the low back. Do not hoe with your feet together, side by side. This position increases the stress you place on your low back. You can save your back and provide a good lower extremity workout by lunging forward and then backward (transferring your weight to the front foot and then to the back foot) as you hoe.
Just a little strength training
Strength training comes into play as you are lifting your flats of flowers or vegetable plants. Bend your knees and keep your back locked in a slightly forward position as you lift. Lifting from the waist or with a rounded back can lead to back injuries.
If the load is too heavy or too far away, be kind to your body and transport your plants with a wheelbarrow.
Gardening safety tips
1. Take frequent breaks when you first start gardening to help gradually condition your body. Even if you weren’t sedentary during the winter months, your body is not used to this activity.
2. Switch tasks or change position when you feel yourself stiffening up to give your muscles a break. For example, switch from hoeing to planting or switch the lead foot during hoeing if you start to get sore.
3. When planting, don’t kneel on both knees as this can cause low back strain. Instead, kneel on one knee and keep the other foot on the ground to give your back more stability. If you have bad knees, sit on a small stool. Again, have one foot back and one foot forward to give your back better support.
4. Bend both knees when bending down to pull weeds. Contract your abdominal muscles, to support the back, before actually pulling the weeds.
By stretching first and following good body mechanics, gardening can be a good full-body workout that doesn’t leave you sore and becomes a more enjoyable experience.