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Gardening is hard work, so warm up for it

Posted 6/22/2009

By Jim Sloan

A lot of people, when they think of gardening, imagine puttering around the flower bed, gently probing the soft earth with a trowel.

But the reality is often something much different.

It’s wielding a pick or shovel in an effort to open up the rock-hard northern Nevada soil to plant a bush.

It’s the back-breaking work of turning your compost pile with a pitchfork as you try to mix your greens and browns into just the right magical mixture.

It’s the gut-wrenching work of maneuvering a rototiller through the rocky soil or keeping an aerator moving across your lawn without shredding the turf.

It’s the knee-grinding business of squatting and rising as you inspect your garden for squash bugs or grasshoppers.

Veteran gardeners are well aware that gardening can be a tough row to hoe, and that’s what draws many to the pastime. Gardening is flat-out good exercise — it can be just as challenging as taking a Pilates class or jogging, and in some cases it can be even more demanding than traditional exercise.

And just like other forms of exercise, gardening can lead to injury if the gardener isn’t careful. Just as you wouldn’t run a 10-kilometer road race without any preparation, you shouldn’t stroll into the gardening and starting twisting and turning and lifting and hauling without taking the proper precautions:

  • Warm up for gardening by taking a short, brisk walk. Get your heart beating a little faster and don’t worry if you break a sweat. You want your muscles to be warm because you are about to;
  • Stretch your thighs and hamstring muscles, those big guys on the front and back of your upper leg. Standing next to a tree or a fence, bring one foot up behind you and grab the top of your foot or ankle with the hand on the same side as the raised leg. Pull gently toward your buttocks, hold for 30 seconds and then do the same with the other leg. Now to get those hamstrings;
  • Put the heel of one foot on a chair, deck or fence rail in front of you about a foot or more off the ground. Straighten that leg out and bend slowly and gently forward until you feel the tightening in the hamstring. Don’t force anything or start bouncing forward. Instead, keeping your leg straight, press your raised heel down and feel that hamstring tighten up. Hold it clenched for a few seconds. Then relax and lean forward again. It should feel looser. Now do the other leg.
  • Now the arms. Hold one arm out in front of you and raise your palm up as if you were ordering someone to stop. Reach across with the opposite arm and gently pull your upraised fingers back. Now do the other arm.
  • Now stretch your lower back by sitting in a chair and bending forward at the hips. Put your head down and rest your hands on the floor. No bouncing now, just rest there.

Now you’re ready to go, but remember: you have to work your way into shape, just like any athlete. So don’t head out and put in eight hours the first day. Start with small projects — two-hour jobs, perhaps — and work your way up to all-day gardening. This may be tough to do when you’re a weekend warrior who only has large chunks of gardening time on the weekends, so considering tackling small jobs after work or in the evenings during the week; you won’t have quite so much to do on the weekends, and you’ll have already built up some flexibility and stamina.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that emergency rooms treat nearly a half million garden tool-related injuries each year, so take these precautions as well:

  • Wear gardening gloves to reduce blisters and keep bacteria and fungus out from under your fingernails;
  • Avoid prolonged, repetitive motions like raking and digging that can cause joint pain. Mix it up.
  • Look for tools with cushioned grips and forged metal from end to end. They won’t snap off on you.
  • Use a light, plastic step stool to sit on in the garden so you don’t have to kneel as much. Use a kneeler in other situations.
  • Use both sides of your body; rake right-handed and left-handed, for instance, to avoid muscle imbalances.
  • Take periodic breaks.
  • Lift with the legs, Hercules, not the back.
  • Drink lots of water.

Although you should be cautious, remember that exercise is GOOD for you. From a medical health standpoint, it’s riskier to have a sedentary lifestyle than it is to get out and break a sweat.

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