orOne of the reasons gardening is such a good exercise is that the sheer joy of hiding how hard you are working so you end up trying harder than you would in the gym. Scientific studies show it, not that I need proof. When I manage to steal a moment to prune a tangle of triffids, I can hardly stop. Before I know it, I waved a chainsaw high on a pole for four hours.
The only downside is that the endless jerking, pushing, lifting, and bending can cause, or exacerbate, aches and pains. NHS Digital data for 2020-21 (aka the big boom in gardening and DIY) records 12,355 hospital admissions in England with injuries related to “overexertion and strenuous or repetitive movement”. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Madeline Hooper, a retired PR executive living in North New York’s Hudson Valley, has come to a point where she could no longer ignore her sore neck. “I love gardening,” she says, “and no matter how long it takes to weed the bed, I’m weeding the entire bed. But I had terrible pain in my neck and upper shoulder ”. Being a capable guy, she sought help from personal trainer Jeff Hughes, whose simple, common sense approach worked. The couple have now teamed up on a US TV show called GardenFit, in which they travel around America, admiring the gardens as they help educate the world on painless gardening.
The first thing to know is that posture is everything. “If your head is back and your chest is puffy and your shoulders are back and down, you feel tall and powerful,” says Hughes. “Whatever you do, you will incorporate the correct muscle, while when you guess, you will incorporate muscles that are not designed to do that work. And that’s what we do when we get tired ”.
Hooper’s technique was a perfect example of this. “Your shoulder raises your arm,” says Hughes, “and your trapezius raises your shoulder. If you do something all day and your shoulder gets tired of lifting your arm, your body is smart. It says: what else. can lift your arm? Suddenly your trapezius is doing something it was not designed for and obviously your neck will hurt. The solution is simple: “When your shoulder gets tired of lifting your arm, stop lifting your damn arm!
“As soon as you begin to recognize that you can no longer maintain correct posture, do something on the ground or take the shovel and dig. Now you are going in the opposite direction with your shoulders. “
British garden designer and TV presenter Danny Clarke follows a similar philosophy. “He keeps trading jobs,” he says. “I always say, ‘Little and often.’” He has the he sequence of him. “I don’t do heavy lifting or digging. I will warm the body by mowing. Coming from a sporting background, he says: “I am quite aware of my body and what it can and cannot do.” For some, mental adjustment is required to let go of completing a task in a session. “Don’t try to finish it, because the garden is never finished,” Clarke says calmly. “This is the beauty: it is infinite. Savor every moment. To have fun.”
Strengthening exercises are sometimes needed to correct the posture that causes pain – Hughes remembers a gardener named Bob, who appears on the TV show with lower back pain. “He didn’t stand up when he walked,” says Hughes. “The lower back supports everything above it, so if you are hunched over, it is becoming tense.”
If that sounds like you, you might want to try this one. “Relax your shoulders,” says Hughes. “Imagine you have your favorite pair of blue jeans and I want you to take your shoulder blades very slowly and put them in your back pockets.” This creates a pivot effect, where the chest inflates, you breathe easier and the spine is aligned. As he holds it, he adds, “Whatever muscle is starting to tire right now, it’s your weak muscle that you need to strengthen.” The longer you hold this position, he says, the more those weak muscles will train, ultimately allowing them to do their job automatically.
To awaken these muscles in Bob, Hughes gave him an exercise band to hold in front like a dumbbell, and then lift over his head. The effect was immediate, with Bob marveling at his newfound ability to stand. “Your whole perspective changes,” says Hughes, “because your peripheral vision is now better.” Hughes prescribed Bob four weeks to practice his new posture and briefly repeat a few moves with his gym band every day.
As you work in your garden, vegetable patch or community plot, with your shoulder blades in your back pockets, the next move to master is what Hooper and Hughes call “lounge chair”, which isn’t as restful as it sounds, but could save you back when you bend over. or lift. “If you spread your feet, you are automatically closer to the ground,” says Hughes. “Everything falls and when you bend over, your knees and butt stick out and you come down in a good basic squat.” Then rest your arms on your legs. “Now the lower back is not holding your body. If you apply it to the next eight hours, your back will be your best friend at the end of the day.
When using one arm for weeding or planting, you can have the other support arm resting on its leg, but switching arms is essential. Hughes says it’s essential to train your non-dominant hand to do its fair share of the job. This will not only spread the load over your arms and shoulders, but “you will be in balance with your twist; you’re starting to balance your torso ”. Similarly, if you are on a ladder, he says, “Turn it, so now you are turning the other way.”
Balance reappears in the couple’s last tip, which they call “swing” and implies, once again, being more aware of your body while working. If you’re reaching out while holding heavy clippers, you have to counter that weight by holding your shoulder blade down, so that, says Hughes, “You can match the pressure here with the pressure there, like a little swinging rebound effect.”
Hooper says that within four weeks of integrating Hughes’ corrections into her life, healthier habits had taken root and she started feeling better. “After six weeks, I have never had pain from gardening again.
“I wish I had learned that when I started gardening,” Hooper says. In all the gardening courses and books he has completed, he says to him, “no one teaches this.”