Pruning, digging, weeding, shoveling, lifting — gardening can be as brutal on the body as a contact sport.
That’s what Jenny Stocker found when she leaned over one day to pull out a crossvine poking up in her yard, and the root gave way. Stocker, 68, tried to break her fall with her left hand but toppled back.
“I fell on my left side,” says Stocker, who couldn’t move for two days afterward. “I got the hot water bottle out.”
As gardeners often find out too late, working in the yard can leave hands, arms, legs and backs sore, achy and even injured. Some experts advise gardeners to follow a regimen of stretches and exercises to help keep them from causing themselves harm. (Though gardeners, of course, should consult a physician if they have medical concerns or are unclear about what exercises are appropriate for them.)
Stocker eventually felt better but occasionally still felt a sharp pain in her hip.
“I almost felt like I might collapse,” says Stocker, who is originally from England but who now lives off Lost Creek Boulevard. “I kept expecting it to get better.”
She finally visited a chiropractor who gave her an exercise regimen to help her get back out amid the shrubs and flowers and “to strengthen muscles I’ve abused over the years, bending, lifting, shoveling.”
Now she starts each day, on the floor, doing exercises for about 15 minutes. She has new “garden tools” to use, such as a tennis ball, a rolling pin, elastic bands and stability ball. (She’s delighted that most of these items are, coincidentally, green.)
For part of her regimen, she uses a rolling pin on her calves and thighs. She also lies on her back on top of a foam roller that’s about 2 feet long.
“You roll back and forth,” she says. “It’s like getting a massage.”
She even continued her exercises while on vacation for seven weeks, so she could return to work among the plants.
“I don’t know how I’ll manage if I can’t garden,” she says.
Stacy Best, of Kentucky, a registered kinesiotherapist and master gardener, has designed a program for gardeners to help prevent soreness or injury and strengthen their core.
“We’re gardening athletes,” she says, and all that yard work can lead to lower back problems, as well as hand and wrist pain from overuse.
Best, who does speaking engagements, says she hears from many gardeners who are surprised by the idea of stretching or exercising for yard work.
“People just assume they will be sore,” she says.
Best says her program, “Fit to Garden,” has four parts: gardening warm-up, proper biomechanics (such as positioning of the body), post-gardening stretching and off-season strengthening. Her newsletter and “Fit to Garden” guides are available free on her website www.stacybest.com.
Best recommends doing a five- to 10-minute warm-up before gardening.
“Maybe go for a walk around the block,” she says. “Do something to get your heart rate up a bit before you go straight into the most difficult task.”
Similarly, after working outdoors, gardeners should stretch, she says.
“The most important area to stretch is the low back and hamstrings,” Best says. Tight hamstrings can cause low back pain, she says.“If you can stretch those hamstrings, you are ahead of the game.”
Additionally, if a gardener favors using one side of the body over the other, then stretching afterward can help put the body back into correct alignment, she says.
She also stresses proper biomechanics when doing garden chores, such as raking, shoveling and lifting.
“Never bend over at the waist,” she says. “That’s the No. 1 reason folks end up with back pain the next day. You can really injure yourself in the long term. The alternative is to squat or sit or kneel.”
Gardeners also should get their bodies ready before the months of active gardening, she says.
“I encourage a few exercises and stretches in the off season to prepare those muscles,” Best says.
Several books also offer information for gardeners to prepare themselves for vigorous yard work.
“Stretching” by Bob Anderson includes a page about stretches for before and after gardening, estimated to take four minutes. The book, which includes diagrams for various stretches, recommends gardeners do shoulder shrugs, squats and stretches for the quadriceps and triceps, among others.
“This will help get your body ready to work efficiently without the usual tightness and stiffness that results from this kind of work,” the book says.
“Gardening Fitness: Weeding Out the Aches and Pains,” by Barbara Pearlman, covers exercises for the arms, back, hands and knees, as well as flexibility enhancers. The book also gives suggestions for performing garden-specific movements. For example, to turn compost, it says, “As for the most back-saving way to manage the chore (short of having someone else do it) when using a pitchfork, you have to bend your knees when you plunge the tool into the compost and bend them again when lifting the loaded pitchfork.”
Stocker, once a distance runner, says she was unaccustomed to doing exercises and stretches to prepare for yard work. “I can’t tell you how many wheelbarrows I’ve pushed without a thought of my shoulders,” she says. Even now, she has to remind herself of ways to take care of her body when gardening.
“I have been trying to get down on that little pad, rather than on my knees,” she says.
Nowadays, Stocker has cautionary advice about stretching and exercising for other gardeners.
“The important thing,” she says, “is to start before you need it.”