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Gardening for Fitness

Few things can be more enjoyable than your garden, and gardening offers a terrific whole-body workout plus a shopping list of side benefits. Getting your Garden into shape gets you into shape, provided, of course, that you do the grunt work. In fact, so powerful a workout does gardening offer that it can be considered an active sport, just like tennis or baseball. It takes a lot of hard physical labour to create and maintain that backyard paradise, which someone will be sure to tell you you’re so lucky to have!

Double-digging beds, hoeing clayey soil, raking leaves, mowing lawns, turning compost, shovelling manure, incorporating fertiliser, working with a crowbar, collecting and positioning rocks, pushing overflowing wheelbarrows, planting, pruning and weeding … those will strengthen all your major muscle groups as well as your cardiovascular system.

An extra benefit includes being out in the fresh air and sunshine, something today’s hectic lifestyle doesn’t allow most people to enjoy in sufficient quantities. You are channelling that vital creative urge, building something of great beauty that will give you, your family and everyone who walks past so much pleasure. You may even be growing your own healthy, fresh, organic fruit, vegetables and herbs, which taste so superior to those you buy in the shops, you can never go back to the commercial varieties. Also, your gardening time gives you space to think, plan, pray and meditate while you work up a sweat.

Workout warm-up

While gardening is as physically demanding as many sports, most gardeners don’t prepare their bodies properly for their sport by gradually warming up and stretching before getting into the serious stuff. They are more likely to head straight for the garden shed on Saturday morning after a sedentary week at the office and haul a 25kg bag of manure across the yard, then wonder why their back goes out. They’ll spend two solid days on serious pruning and wonder why they have pins and needles in their forearm. They’ll spend the best part of a day squatting down, planting out the spring bulbs, without having worked first at conditioning their joints, then find they can barely hobble up to the house that night. Small wonder back problems, knee problems, carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) and tendonitis are major problems for serious gardeners.

Even those weekend garden warriors who stay in shape by doing gym workouts during the week will find their intense Saturday and Sunday sessions reveal muscles they never knew existed. Swimming, cycling and running may condition you aerobically, but they wont necessarily prepare you for the carrying, pushing, pulling and crawling on all fours that gardening demands.

If you’ve decided to adopt gardening as your official fitness routine, you must treat it like any other workout. No matter how anxious you are to hit the soil, first warm up and stretch every part of your body. Ease into the chores, gradually building the intensity of what you are doing. During the day take regular breaks to stretch the muscles that are tiring, and when the days work is finished, spend a few minutes stretching all your muscles before you hit the shower. If its been an especially heavy session, you may decide to follow your shower with a relaxing soak in a bath scented with a few drops of essential oil such as lavender.

Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)

Gardeners, especially the weekend warrior types, are as prone to painful carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS) as data input operators. Women experience CTS more than men, with pregnant women, and menopausal women who take oral contraceptives, at greater risk still. The risk for both sexes increases if you are overweight or don’t exercise much.

The carpal tunnel is formed by the wrist bones (carpals) and the transverse ligament running across the base of the palm like a watchband that holds them in place. The nine tendons that move the fingers, and the median nerve leading into the muscles that move the thumb, pass through this tunnel down into the wrist, bundled together in a sheath called the synovium.

When you perform repetitive hand and wrist movements such as pruning or typing, the tendons and synovium become inflamed and swollen. Even a slight swelling in the wrist area can compress the nerve enough to short-circuit the signal. Symptoms resemble the sensation you experience when your foot goes to sleep: tingling and numbness, or pain in the hands and fingers, especially the thumb and first two fingers. The more you use your hand, the more it will hurt. As the condition progresses, your hand may become so weak that even gripping a glass is impossible.

The best treatment for CTS is to not let it develop. Implement preventative measures: avoid doing repetitive actions such as pruning or deadheading for long periods; take regular breaks; mix up gardening tasks; and do a couple of hand exercises at the first sign of discomfort, even if it is simply shaking out your hands. If you are a new gardener or have not gardened for some time, gradually increase the duration of your work. Avoid keeping your hand in a fixed position for long periods. When you are crawling around the garden on all fours, don’t press your body weight onto the heel of your hand; it is too much for those delicate wrists, even if you don’t weigh very much. Use good-quality, lightweight tools and maintain them in top condition. Try to improve your ambidexterity to protect one hand from overuse; doing this gives your brain a great workout too!

Don’t ignore the symptoms of CTS. For mild to moderate cases, vitamin B6 appears to be effective; take 50 milligrams per day to end the tingling. To boost the vitamins healing power, take 10 milligrams of riboflavin with it. You will need to continue the regimen for at least three months to gain full benefit. Additionally, ensure you are consuming sufficient omega-3 fatty acids to help control the inflammation. Eat oily fish three times a week and supplement with one tablespoon of flaxseed oil each day. Don’t cook with the oil; use it on salads or spread it on bread instead of using butter.

Watching your back

Keen gardeners will need to invest some time and effort into keeping this injury-prone area of the body in top working order. The most important component of a healthy back is strong abdominal muscles, so do your stomach crunches every single day.

Four layers of overlapping, criss-crossing fibres form the abdominal muscles, acting like guy wires to keep your back in line. If those wires are weak, their hold on the spine wont be sufficiently protective. Strong abdominal muscles prevent not only the back muscles from overworking, but also the leg muscles. If your back lacks flexibility and strength, when you bend over to pick up something, your hamstrings and knees have to work harder to compensate.

Every day perform yoga-based exercises, which are ideal for strengthening the back. Exercises might include: supine or standing hip flexor stretch, cat stretch, spinal twists, spinal rolls, side-to-side hip rocks, pelvic arch, bridge, cobra, shoulder stand and plough pose.

Arming yourself

Just as swimmers lift weights to help power them through the water and improve their overall performance, so gardeners will find that toning and conditioning arm muscles through resistance training will help power them through all the heavy chores they constantly tackle.

By strengthening the muscles of the forearms you can help prevent tennis elbow. Be assured that you dont have to play tennis to develop this ubiquitous condition. When forearm muscles are required to do more than they are conditioned for, irritation and roughening occur at the point where the tendon anchors the major muscles in the forearm to the upper arm bone. The telltale symptom is pain on the outside of the joint just above the elbow crease. The two most punishing motions to the tendon are repeated tight gripping while turning the palm downwards (pronation) or upwards (supination), which are actions you perform constantly when working in the garden, such as when you pull weeds.

If you haven’t been doing upper body resistance training, start with light weights (say, one kilogram) and gradually build up. If your upper body is fairly strong you will probably be able to use heavier weights. Heres how to test whether you have the right weight: when you complete a set of eight or 12 repetitions, the muscles should feel slightly fatigued; if you feel as though you can easily complete another set without resting, they are too light; if you cant get through a full set, they are too heavy.

The most beneficial exercises for gardeners include: biceps curls, both to the front and to the sides; chest press; flies; side arm lifts; front arm lifts; military press; upright row; bent over row; and French press for the triceps. Additionally, perform floor push-ups or wall push-ups and triceps dips.

To build the muscles of the forearm, hold a one to one-and-a-half-kilo weight in your hand; your palm should be face down resting on a table, elbow bent, with the wrist at the edge of the table to support it. Now, slowly rotate the forearm clockwise until the palm is facing to the ceiling; the move should take five seconds. Equally slowly, rotate the forearm so you return to the starting position. Rest for two seconds. Build to 12 repetitions on each arm.

To strengthen the wrist flexors, start with the same-sized weight, palm upwards, hand resting on a table as for the above exercise. Now, bend your wrist upwards to the ceiling, hold for five seconds, and return to the starting position. Build to 12 repetitions on each arm.

To improve wrist flexibility, stand with arms stretched out in front of you at shoulder height, palms facing the floor. Now, flex both hands upwards very strongly and feel the stretch under your arms. Hold for five seconds, then drop your hands down from the wrist and hold for another five seconds. Repeat the sequence six times. To increase the stretch, place your hands against a wall for both phases of the movement.

Knee-high needs

Gardeners knees are constantly assaulted from all directions: front, back and sides. Strong, healthy knees that allow you to comfortably squat and crawl around as easily as a baby make life so much easier for a gardener. They also help protect against back injury because they enable you to pick up heavy items correctly, which is by bending your knees and using your abdominal and thigh muscles, rather than bending your back and putting pressure onto the discs in the vertebral column.

Squatting incorrectly can stress knees by straining, and possibly even tearing, the ligaments. The safe way to squat is with your heels in contact with the ground and your weight spread across the entire surface of your feet, which should be positioned about 30 centimetres apart. Squatting with heels raised off the ground, or with your weight forward on your toes, places excessive pressure on the knees and may damage the knee ligaments.

For most of us, squatting this way is difficult. Flexible, stretched calf muscles and Achilles tendons (the tendon that attaches the calf muscle to the back of the heel bone) are prerequisites, so perform calf raises to strengthen the muscles, and calf stretches to boost flexibility.

Strong quadricep muscles (the large muscles in the front of the thighs) are also essential to support your knees. Plies, lunges and squats all build the quads; movements should be slow and controlled for each exercise, with your back kept straight and head erect. When performing squats, avoid going too deep. Hold the squat for five slow counts before rising out of it. The yoga chair pose is another powerful exercise.

Here’s how you can learn to squat down again if you haven’t been able to do it for a long time. Stand with your back in contact with a wall and your feet about 15 centimetres or so away from it. Slowly slide down the wall, keeping your back in contact to support you. Go as far as you can without discomfort. Keep working at it until you can squat down comfortably; it may take a while, but you will get there.

If you are doing a job that requires long periods of squatting, or on your knees, its important to get up periodically to give them a break. People with arthritic knees will need to use kneeling pads, cushions or stools to protect their knees, especially at times when the ground is cold and damp. Always position yourself as close as possible to the work you are doing. This saves you from leaning too far forward; the straighter you keep your spine, the less strain you place on it.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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