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Exercise and self-massage strategies to prepare your body for gardening

If you’re a gardener, the appearance of the first spring blossoms can feel like Christmas Eve feels to a five-year-old. I’ve never ceased being amazed when the tiny, inert seeds I tuck into the ground produce radishes, fresh peas and fragrant flowers for the table. I’m always startled by how quickly time passes when I’m digging weeds or pruning shrubs.

Gardening is great functional fitness, while also being meditative and calming. Unlike running on a treadmill, for me gardening feels purposeful, meaningful and creative.

Numerous scientific studies have demonstrated the benefits of gardening, not only for physical health, but also for its capacity to enhance mental and emotional wellbeing. Getting in touch with soil, air, sunlight, water and the spaciousness of nature is a yoga practice of its own.

Gardening for Fitness

Gardening can be surprisingly strenuous. The physical requirements include pushing, pulling, forward bending, kneeling, lunging, twisting, lifting, gripping and just about any other movement you can think of.

A few years ago my neighbour presented me with a small yucca plant, which I installed in the flower bed just outside my office window. Little did I know it would grow into Yuccenstein the Invader and proceed to choke out everything else in the garden!

A “Yuccenstein” plant similar to the one that overtook Elaine’s garden

Eventually, I gave up trying to prune it back and decided to transplant it. How hard could it be? Several hours later, soaked in sweat and hurting all over, I’d hacked it into about fifty pieces, many of which survive elsewhere to this day. I could barely move the next day, and I’m a reasonably fit person.

Gardening includes a diverse subset of tasks that can require the joints to move in every available direction, as well as requiring strength, coordination and balance. I’ve often found myself in accidental yoga poses as I stretch to tie a clematis to the trellis, or grope for a stealthy weed in an inaccessible corner.

In a large garden, chances are you’ll be doing a lot of digging, whether you’re splitting and replanting perennials, mulching, or flipping the compost pile. Shoveling requires strong legs, glutes, spinal extensors and shoulders as well as core stabilization.

Shoveling is a full body exercise!

What makes shovelling in the garden more challenging are the less-than-ideal conditions such as uneven terrain, awkward angles (obstacles like trees or fences), unpredictable loads (root balls don’t cooperate), weather (slippery surfaces and tools), and mosquitos, which are not a biomechanical factor but they can cause you to lose your balance and tumble into the tomato plants.

8 Steps to Prevent Injury While Gardening

As a retired occupational therapist, I have a few fitness-oriented recommendations that you can pursue in the off-season, and a few general tips about avoiding pain and injury:

  1. Condition your body with a variety of poses: Use your regular movement practice and Yoga Tune Up® tool kit to build the strength and range of motion you’ll need. Movements that are particularly useful are squatting, lunging, forward bending and getting up and down from the floor. Poses that come to mind are Happy Baby, Squat With Arms Up at the Wall (see picture), Warrior poses, the “Pelvic Primer” series, forward bends and core strengthening poses like Plank.

    Tune Up Fitness® creator Jill Miller demonstrates Squat at the Wall With Arms Up

  2. Build your endurance: Be mindful about your conditioning and make your return to gardening gradual. I like to set a timer the first few days so that I don’t overdo it and injure myself. Also, try to alternate between sitting, kneeling and standing tasks.
  3. Start light: Warm up with lighter activities first. For example, do a little weeding or light raking before tackling heavy tasks like digging in manure.
  4. Support your spine: Make an effort to keep your spine as neutral as possible, hinging at the hips and bending the knees if needed. This is particularly important for those with osteoporosis, because spinal flexion results in larger compressive forces on the vertebral bodies.
  5. Practice safe shovelling:
    • Keep your load close to your body and keep it as small as feasible.
    • Look for the most level, Tadasana-like starting positions you can manage (i.e. neutral spine, and feet parallel, hip distance apart).
    • Turn your feet with the loaded shovel rather than twisting at your spine.
    • Make sure that you stabilize your core (see “Tubular Core” below – inhale, firm the abdominal muscles, then squeeze in from all directions – this creates a powerful inner brace for postural stability).
    • Wear good, grippy gloves and sensible footwear (so you don’t damage your plantar fascia or turn your ankles).
    • Take spinal extending breaks (see below) to counter all the forward-bending.
  1. Rest and modify where necessary: Take rest breaks to check in with your breathing and your joints. Keep in mind that there are a plethora of modifications and adaptations available (too big a topic to tackle here). Products and services to make gardening accessible to any body are widely available.  
  2. Cool down and rest: Think of it like a yoga class. Once you’ve done your peak pose (e.g. digging up the Hostas) take time to do a sitting or kneeling task, followed by some gentle stretches and then a sweet Savasana (hammocks are perfect but you can do a sitting version in a lounge chair). Celebrate with the restorative beverage of your choice and then follow up with rolling out the tired, achy places (such as the forearms).
  3. Go with the flow: Gardening connects us with the cycle of birth and death, light and darkness, inhaling and exhaling, order and chaos. It’s a microcosm of how we live, so take some time to stop and enjoy the roses. Don’t forget the “breath and bliss” to fully reap the benefits of what you sow.

 

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