I love being in the garden.
To be frank, I’m guilty of being a fair weather gardener and at this time of year I’m paying for not keeping on top of all the little tasks I should have been doing during the winter months. I know that even raking up leaves or heading off weeds for half an hour or so gets me out into the fresh air and restores a sense of well-being that can be lost by being cooped up inside on long dark days.
But still, Spring is upon us, and I’m tackling my patch of the outside with great gusto.
Gardening is a great way to maintain health in so many ways. Growing our own fruit and veg helps us to cut down on food that has travelled miles and so lost its nutritional value. We can avoid the chemicals involved in processing and we enjoy the variety of eating food that’s in season, with known origin and real flavour.
Of course, any time spent not sitting down improves metabolism, positively affects blood fats, blood pressure and appetite hormones. In turn, this helps to maintain a healthy weight. Did you know, a loss of 1lb in body fat equates to a 4lb reduction in load on your knees and hips? And, according to the British Journal of Sports Medicine, gardening can reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke by 27%!
In my line of work, of course, I’m interested in the effect gardening has on the structure and strength of the body. 3 hours’ pottering in the garden can have the same positive impact as a 1 hour full-blown workout in the gym.
However, it’s as important to maintain your muscle health for gardening as it is for working out. Your muscles support your spine and your other joints, so if they’re in good shape, you’re less likely to suffer from damage and those aches and pains which are all too familiar to gardeners.
Here are some techniques which can help:
1. Spend 5 – 10 minutes “warming up”. This can be a stroll around your garden while you assess what you’ll be doing. Keep a slight arch in the lower back, slightly tensing the abdominal muscles, and don’t slouch! If you plan to do some raking or hoe-ing, gently imitate the action that you’ll be doing for real. Stretch: clasp your fingers together and lift your hands above your head then down to your toes. Take your hands out to shoulder-height and then twist your torso from side to side, keeping your knees slightly bent and feet apart.
2. Bend and lift correctly; this will protect your back. Use your thigh muscles, not those in your back: bend your knees, leaning over from the hips and keeping your back straight from the base of your neck all the way down to the end of your spine.
3. When weeding or planting, use a portable garden stool to protect your knees and joints while kneeling. Better still, you can strengthen your muscles by squatting. With your bottom close to the ground and your feet flat on the ground and your back straight, position your heels a little more than shoulder width apart. Of course, you could always go on your hands and knees; this will help strengthen your core. Raised beds help in the fact that you can sit on the edges while you work.
4. Take every opportunity to stretch gently, too. Balancing builds strength; stand on one leg while pruning or digging.
All these may take some practice. Take it little by little, break tasks into manageable chunks, and take breaks to stretch and rest. Keep hydrated. If you feel pain, stop what you’re doing but don’t stop entirely. Take a little walk, do some gentle stretches. This is a good thing to do when you’ve completed your tasks for the day anyway.
So, for me, gardening makes me feel great. It gets me outside, it helps to keep my muscles healthy and in the end I can reap the rewards of a bumper harvest!