A Guide to Painless Gardening

It’s almost fall, and the lure of getting back in the garden is quite irresistible. Invigorated by all that balmy fresh air, you spend the first sunny day digging, planting, lifting, and hauling. The next morning, you pay.

Your thighs quiver. Your back tightens with every step. Even your wrists are sore when you bend them.

You forget about it every year when you go out for the first time. But there I am every year; bending at the waist, doing the crab walk to move to the next spot. After a few hours I need a crane to straighten up, and then I’m out of commission for the next three days.

Gardeners reap more than flowers, in a bad way.

There’s a reason for all those aches and pains. Gardening is a great workout. It exercises all your major muscle groups and helps tone your body.

If you garden regularly, you can expect to get stronger, increase your range of motion, and become more limber.

Gardening is counted toward the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) recommendation to get a cumulative 30 minutes or more of moderate exercise every day, and not more. Gardening–defined by the CDC as weeding, trimming, and raking–burns roughly 500 calories an hour for men and about 350 calories an hour for women.

Besides adding to your overall physical fitness, tilling the soil can help reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other chronic ailments. A University of Washington study found that people who walked or gardened for at least one hour a week lowered their risk of heart attack by 66 percent compared to those who did not exercise at all.

Sow an injury-free workout, But just as any sport can cause injury, so can the twisting, turning, and bending that gardening requires. If you don’t prepare your body, you can expect aches, pains, and stiffness. This is particularly true if both you and your garden are just returning from a long winter’s nap.

As with all activities, you have to warm up and stretchMost people don’t stretch first, and that’s job security for guys like me.

Everyone, from the well-spudded couch potato to the seasoned athlete, should warm up before gardening.

Pain-free gardening. Here are some basic tips:

* Before doing anything–even any pregarden stretches–take a walk around your yard a few times to loosen up. Or take a brief bike ride around the block to help you limber up, says Bradshaw.

* Be cautious about the amount of strain placed on your lower back. Let your arms and legs do the work when pulling a rake or pushing a hoe or shovel. When weeding or planting, sit on the ground or kneel on a foam pad.

* Do easier tasks first. As you progress, periodically switch to other jobs to avoid overusing one muscle group. You should also alternate difficult tasks with less taxing ones.

* Limit the strain on your back when lifting heavy objects.

Here are some more tips for pain-free gardening:

* “Instead of bending at the waist to pick up a bag of mulch, pull it up on your thigh close to your body and then stand up,” says Bradshaw. “Your thighs can take more strain than your back.”

* Assume a scissors stance while raking by placing your right foot forward and left foot back, says the American Chiropractic Association. After a few minutes, reverse this position, putting your left foot forward and your right foot back. Periodically reverse the position of your hands on the rake.

* Pace yourself. Work for 15 to 30 minutes and take a stretching break. “I will put my gardening tool down, stretch my arms over my head, or I might do some gentle shoulder rolls,” says fitness author Pearlman. If you tend to lose track of time while gardening, she recommends taking your kitchen timer with you to remind you to take a break.

* Keep hydrated. Water should be consumed every 30 minutes, and for warm days, every 15 minutes, says Eugenia Bradshaw.

* Think of gardening as a workout, and schedule 30 minutes to an hour of it at least three times a week. Break longer gardening sessions into two- to three-hour time periods instead of all-day undertakings. The 30 minutes before sunset can be a particularly tranquil time to schedule your “workouts.”

* Don’t work through aches and pains. “If you feel a burning sensation or sharp pains coming on, that is an indication to stop,” says Hansen. If you don’t, you may risk injury. As is the case with any workout, you should supplement gardening with other forms of exercise for an all-around healthy body. The Bradshaws recommend walking, biking, or swimming.

Fertilizer for the soul. Besides being good for your body, gardening can lift your spirit as you revel in the sights, smells, and sounds of nature. Research shows that just viewing plants and trees makes people feel better, says Joel Flagler, a registered horticultural therapist at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Getting your hands dirty results in even more positive benefits. “We’re creatures that love to nurture, and the greatest satisfaction comes from watching something develop because of our care.”

Whatever you do, try and keep outdoor endeavors light and carefree.


The length of your gardening tools is key. Ideally, when you stand the tool with the head on the ground, the handle should reach your waist. Here are some other tips.

Shovel–Preferred length: 54 to 60 inches. Shorter shovels, used for digging around plants, should be 40 inches in length. Keep the shovel close to your body and use your legs while lifting.

Rake–Preferred length: 60 to 66 inches. Hold the rake close to the body and let your arms pull the rake in by using short strokes, says Bradshaw, “instead of reaching too far forward.”

Hand Trowel–Look for one with a curved handle and thumb rest, which makes it easier to push without bending the wrist.

Long-Handle Shears–These shears allow you to trim in an upright position. The tip: Keep them close to your body. “If they’re extended out too far, you don’t have as much leverage and you can hurt your upper back.”

Hand Shears–Look for newer ergonomic versions that offer a more comfortable grip. When using, kneel instead of standing, to avoid bending over.

Hoe–Preferred length: 50 to 70 inches. Use with legs slightly bent and allow your arms to do the pulling. If you feel your back when using a hoe you’re bending too far forward, Bradshaw says. One leg should extend slightly in front of the other in a balanced stance. Reverse position every few minutes.

Pitchfork–Preferred length: 42 to 48 inches. This requires more upper body work so let your back and shoulder muscles do some of the work, Bradshaw says. Remember to bend your knees.

Good luck in your quest for painful gardening!

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