P.E. for Gardeners

I hate to bring this up, but sooner or later your body is going to rebel against the physical demands of gardening.  It is not going to appreciate the fact that, within the course of an afternoon, you hauled 30 cubic feet of mulch on your back, bent to the ground from a standing position 167 times, and — on tiptoe — leaned forward while stretching waaaay out with your hedge clippers to reach the top of the damn yew hedge,  so that the torque on your lower back was approximately 1200 foot-pounds per square inch, or however you measure that.

He will be sore tomorrow. (www.theoccasionalgardener.com)

Physical therapists, yogis, and other healthy types strongly advise against the strange contortions and repetitive stresses such as those we perform out in our gardens.

I’m sure they would have advised me, during the summer of 2007, not to spend 25+ hours sitting on my heels, bent over, digging, jabbing, tugging a decade’s worth of Bishop’s Weed out of my back garden.  That backache still hasn’t really gone away.

The trouble is, it’s basically impossible to avoid some these stressful postures and movements if you want to garden.  Gardeners have to bend, lift, kneel, reach, pull, possibly even lunge, thrust, and/or dismount, depending on your gardening style.  

I’ve recently been on a quest to find an exercise regime that will help me weather the physical stresses of gardening so that I can keep doing what I love for the next couple of decades at least.  With all respect to the disabled, the idea of designing my garden as a series of raised beds with wheelchair access just depresses me, as does resigning myself to having MowCow in for a weekly Chop ‘n’ Blow while I sit watching  from the window in a state of arthritic semi-paralysis.

No, I need to stay healthy.

Does anybody have any exercise advice for me?  My biggest concern is that my body is no longer “in balance.”  My stomach is weak and flabby (how did THAT happen?) and therefore I think I could pretty easily throw my back out if I try to lift anything too heavy. Also, I’m pretty sure my right side is stronger than my left, and I suspect this sort of asymmetry is frowned upon in fitness circles.

A gardener needs a strong “core” and mine is somewhat, er, rotted.  Nor am I limber.  If a ballet dancer’s body is as malleable as a piece of Bubble Yum on a summer day, mine is like stale Saltwater Taffy sitting in the fridge.  (Note: don’t be intimidated by my use of metaphor; I am a professional English teacher, remember.)

Anyway, I suspect some combination of strength training and stretching is in order.  Strong muscles to help stabilize the body, and stretching to keep the muscles from tightening and becoming (note the medical terminology) “out of whack” due to strenuous and repetitive use.

Yoga class for gardeners. Impale one another with your tools as you limber up!

What occurs to me as I explore the possibility of exercise is that, as an avid gardener, I now see exercise as a means to an end rather thanan end in itself.  In the past I’d think: running is cool!  I’ll be a runner! or  I love exercising to music!  I’ll do Jazzercise!  or These Firm videos will give me killer glutes! etc., etc.

I used to choose exercise based on how much weight I could lose, who else was doing it, what sort of cool gear went along with it, and (I hate to admit it) how it might impress others. (Not that I ever impressed anybody with my 14 minute miles or my Jazzercise Grapevines.)

In contrast, now I am asking: Will doing this exercise help me to chop through 3-inch roots with my mattock? Will it help me prevent a full-body spasm when I have to reach waaaaay up high to tie up a rose cane?  Will it give me the stamina to weed my entire shade bed and still have the energy to prepare Pasta-roni for the family?

I guess when you think about it, it’s no different from the way serious athletes cross-train to enhance their performance in the sport they love.  Runners bike to balance out their leg muscles.  Golfers stretch and lift weights to improve their swing.  Professional ball-players cross-train with Nautilus, dogfighting, and gambling.

I’m going to do the same.  It’s just that gardening is my sport.

43 thoughts on “P.E. for Gardeners

  1. Swimming helps. cold water will chill your aching joints enough to let you sleep (yes, I am at that stage). If you can schedule one or two session with a physical therapist they will come up with some nifty stuff.

    • Luckily I am not at the achy joint stage yet (except for my back — is that a joint?) but I do love to swim. At least, I love to putz around in the water…I don’t really like to swim laps or anything and I HATE indoor pools. Does putzing around in the water have a benefit?

  2. I’m very interested in whatever answers you may find to this question. This has also been a big concern of mine for a while. My big issues are bending and kneeling. My knees are such that kneeling can be pretty painful. Bending I can do up to a point, but it tends to result in pulled muscles in the lower back. There is a third alternative if you’re not too worried about your dignity: reclining.

    Yes, on many weekends you can find me stretched out on my side along a flower bed, planting, weeding etc. Getting up and down is a challenge, and the neighbors find it humorous. (“Hate to see a good man down!”, one never tires of telling me.) Some probably find it strange, but they keep their thoughts to themselves.

    Anyhow, I’ll be waiting anxiously to see what you find out on the subject of garden fitness.

    • You need to get a gardening bench. This has made a world of difference to me. You can turn mine over and it’s a kneeler, but i rarely use that. Just being able to sit and weed or whatever, instead of bending over or squatting (who can do that any more?), makes it a whole new game.

      • You know, I actually have one of those gardening benches and I have trouble finding a situation to use it. When I sit on it, I feel like I have to lean down to far to get to the weeds, and when I use it as a kneeler the sides get in the way.

  3. What a fantastic post. Hilarious but true as was gardeninacitys comment above. I agree and sympathise with you both – but at least I’ll have a smile when my back goes out this time. Curious to see the other comments in due course. B the way I have started up a new gardening blog http://www.conversationswithmonet.com if you guys have the time to check it out. Happy gardening and thanks for giving me a good laugh.

  4. Joking aside, at age 65 I joined a gym and started exercise with a personal trainer who’s delighted to think of things to keep me in shape to garden–lifting heavy stones, bending while leaning sideways, lifting from a squatting position, etc. I think I can do harder work now than when I was 40 (and 40 pounds heavier). It really works (I guess you know that). Good advice.

  5. It seems like yoga would be the easiest and most effective thing for you–builds strength and increases flexibility. Or pilates. Or yogalates (that’s a real thing). My favorite thing is ballet though. It definitely increases core strength and seems to help with strengthening the smaller muscles of the body so all of your movements are supported when you are doing your heavy-duty mulch-a-thons. Plus, you get to move to beautiful music. If you like the idea of ballet but don’t have access to adult classes you might try these online classes and/or videos. I’ve been hearing great things about them: http://www.balletbeautiful.com/

    • Okay, Bria, I checked out that ballet link and I have to say, I’m intrigued. I looked up the DVD on Amazon and it looks tough but it got great reviews. I’m thinking of ordering it. Thanks a million for recommending! I never would have considered ballet.

  6. I struggle with this too–although my back problems are mostly caused by my day job sitting at a desk, no pain can compare to that of “overdoing” it in the garden all day. I swore this year I’d find the solution and incorporate some kind of exercise routine into my gardening. I got as far as a google search (did find some yoga for gardeners though). When I’m out there I’m like a machine and then I suffer.
    However, I will say that I’ve been doing pilates for two years, and it has made a tremendous improvement in my back health. It is imperative that you find a good studio with well trained instructors, as I do not recommend doing it just anywhere. The instructors do not exercise along with you, they observe and instruct.
    I have just never been able to find a yoga studio I like, and pilates is more structured. I am nearly 40, but at least half if not more of the women at my studio are older and very inspiring!

  7. Apparently it’s the chair that is the modern day killer, not the exercise! If we all spent less time sat down (reading blogs…) then the gardening would be easy. Well, it’s a theory.

  8. I am still an exercise for vanity junky – It sounds weird, but I was in my best shape when working for Starbucks – once I got used to it – no pain anywhere, weird, but I totally recommend (although the Mocha’s will get you eventually). Next best, is stretching every day, I use a 10 minute stretch they have on NetFlix or a yoga book, you don’t have to do it long and since stretching is so boring I just do it at home so as not to take any time out of my day. Not sure yet about the weight exercises – I am now working out with a ‘boot camp’ group in the park which is really fun! but it is not pain free. 🙂 The problem with the workout(s) is they all take away from gardening time, which I really don’t like. If I don’t have time for any of the above, I just make myself take breaks and get a drink of water when I start feeling sore or fatigued instead of powering through that last half yard of mulch. Oh, and treewitch reminded me – swimming is great for sore muscles!

    • Yes, yes, yes, Tracy, this is my issue, too! All these swell exercise sessions take away from my very limited time out in the garden. Doing something quick, like the 10 minutes stretches you describe, is probably the sort of thing I should work for.

  9. Hi – I supect most gardeners feel your pain. I teach yoga 3 times a week in order to stay in shape for the strains of gardening. At 67, I don’t have to sit at a desk as much I used to – that really is a back killer. So, find something you enjoy – yoga, swimming, whatever, and do it a few times a week to keep your body stretched out and your muscles relaxed for the rigors of garden work.

  10. So, if I think of gardening as my exercise, is that bad? Ha! Any group fitness class would work range of motion which is what seems to go first. Funny post. Loved it.
    -R.T. Wolfe
    Auhtor, Romantic Suspense, Black Creek

  11. Such a perfect post.. I go to yoga 3 times a week during the “dormant” months..I found that got me thru the first weeks back gardening better than Pilates did. Now working with a great trainer to keep me away from knee surgery as long as possible….Did get bitten by a client’s dog last month….garden variable they just don’t prepare you for in class…

  12. You really are correct. I had a herniated disk several years ago, extremely painful. My doctor recommended physical therapy. It left me feeling 10 years younger and pain free. I do stretching and core exercises each morning. It only takes 20 minutes. The most difficult is leaning against a door and squatting toward the floor 30 times. This builds your leg muscles so you squat to pull a weed instead of bending over. I also pull a stretchy cord slung over a door and wrapped around a door knob to build my arm strength so I lift with my arms instead of my back. All other exercises are done on the bed, including 30 sit ups with legs bent, hands placed at neck, and back curved toward the bed.

  13. Funny you mention your attack on the Bishops Weed as that’s exactly what sent me to the chiropractor recently, such pain! I don’t have the answers you’re after but just wanted to say I could have written this post (although not as well), this exactly how I’m feeling!

  14. You need to think of gardening as the exercise, not something you exercise for.

    I remember hearing a story on NPR years ago about hotel housekeepers. Researchers found that the daily work the women did constituted a serious exercise workout. They took one group of housekeepers and discussed this fact with them. A second group was left in ignorance that they were actually receiving a gym membership-equivalent job benefit. The group who knew they were exercising lost weight and improved their general fitness. The other group, not so much. Why? The researchers didn’t know.

    I also remember a little gardening magazine (of course) article that said even moderate gardening ranked highest as a bone-strengthening activity for women.

    However, as I write this, I am hurting all over from a month of serious gardening. But I am trying to visualize a stronger, thinner me as I pop the ibuprofen.

  15. Glad to hear I am not alone in my struggle … last year I ruined my knees from spending hours on end each day planting grass plugs to replace grass that had died the previous winter … missed 6 mos. of gardening pretty much as I spent most of that recovering and going to PT. This year I have been able to do a surprising amount of work … although I am so wating for the proverbial “other shoe to drop” … waiting for a new injury to appear … gardening in your 60’s is a challenge … and I would love to learn of better ways to continue this wonderful hobby for as long as I am able … stretching does help some … when I slow down enough to do it … my challenge this year is all the leaning and bending to put down fresh mulch … I have a wagon I use to carry the bags on so not a lot of lifting involved … I just roll the bags off the back of my SUV onto the wagon … but only one or two at a time … I have notice this year it is taking me much more time to accomplish my gardening chores but even so I am grateful and thankful I am stll moving … please let me know of any tips you come across for us “older” gardeners!

    • Thanks for your comment Kathy. I’m glad you’re recovering well from your injury. I have to say, even though I made fun of MowCow, I’m pretty sure that I’ll be more than willing to look into enlisting help with my harder chores as I get older. Mulching is my absolute least favorite task in the garden. When my son is a little older I’m going to try to make him do some of it, then when he is gone I will try to find some local teenager that I can pay for help. Not that I won’t want to do ANY hard work, but some chores (like the mulching) are just for the birds. Take care of yourself!

  16. Find a good Pilates instructor. I’ve gone to a Pilates mat class once a week for six years and to the same instructor’s studio for a reformer class once a week for the past two years and I am now a self-appointed poster child for how to sail through two separate total knee replacements. The prospect of planting or weeding on steep hillsides (my own or a client’s) no longer fills me with dismay; I’ve cut 30 minutes off the time it takes me to mow my lawn, giving me more garden time; and, most importantly, I’m rarely, if ever, out of commission because of doing too much the day before.

  17. Basic yoga made me a better skier and got rid of the nagging back ache. Maybe it will make me a better gardener too:-). The jury is out if you judge by the condition of my front yard. The cool weather pansies have whithered in the 100 degree temps. The back looks good but of course that is your doing

  18. Last year I was trapped in, couldn’t bend over, couldn’t squat down. Realised with horror that the ground I wanted to garden in was too far away. Another wakeup call about osteoporosis, and I have been doing core muscles against osteoporosis. Daily practice over months has made a big difference to gardening. I seek out appropriate exercises to stretch/strengthen whichever bit complains next.

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