To some, it’s very simple and straight forward.
“Gardening is a form of exercise,” says Craig Smith, director of physical therapy at Spokane’s Group Health and a gardener himself. “You are reaching over your head to prune. You are reaching down to prune berries. You are pulling weeds. You are raking rocks out of Valley soil. That is what exercise is and is supposed to do for us.”
Using gardening as exercise encompasses the three key activity areas we are encouraged to hit: endurance, flexibility and strength building. The random nature of gardening movements allows all the major muscle groups in the body to be worked, just like going through the weight stations at the gym.
The physical benefits of gardening don’t stop with the exercise. Gardening is a great way to start eating a healthy diet. Vegetables right out of home gardens are packed with fresh nutrition and they almost always taste better than anything from the store.
Gardening is a great way to lose all that winter weight and perhaps even a few pounds more. Many gardening activities burn the same amount of calories as the familiar sports activities we often see. You can’t get a much healthier diet and exercise combination than growing and eating your own vegetables.
Lastly gardening is as good for the spirit as it is the body. Being out in nature and working with plants has a profound impact on our psychological well-being. In our stress-filled, over-programmed lives where technology often sets the pace for what we can do and when, a little gardening offers the simplicity of soil, seeds and seasonal cycles to keep us in touch with the world around us and reconnect with ourselves. There really is something to stopping and smelling the roses.
While gardening is a great form of exercise, the biggest challenge most of us will face in the next couple of weeks is surviving our own enthusiasm to get spring garden chores done.
“People tend to do too much too soon,” says Smith. “They sat around and did essentially nothing all winter in terms of doing what gardens require. Then they go out and expect to get it done in one weekend. They pay for it for a week after that.”
Smith has some suggestions, as you start your new garden exercise routine, which will keep you from getting into too much trouble as you play weekend yard warrior.
“Learn to space the work out a little bit more over time. There probably are items (projects) that you can start a little sooner and then you learn how to space (the work) out a little more,” he says. He points out that we are coming up to daylight-saving time this weekend. This will give us about an hour or so of extra light in the evening to do a little bit on a project instead of saving it all for Saturday.
“Work 15-30 minutes each evening for a week or two and you will probably feel pretty good about putting in a full day’s work,” recommends Smith.
Use your movements wisely. Back problems are the most common thing he sees followed by shoulder and elbow pain caused by repetitive motions like raking. Remember the rule to bend using your knees instead of your back when you are lifting and reaching.
“Your knees bend a whole lot better than your back. If your knees are beginning to degenerate from age or earlier trauma, you need to find some kind of seat, a small stool, rolling cart or just sit on the ground and scoot along.”
Smith says that if you find yourself whacked out by too much gardening, stop and listen to your body. For stiff muscles he suggests an over-the-counter, anti-inflammatory such as aspirin or use good old-fashioned ice.
“Ice is usually used (for) 15 to 20 minutes at a time; let the body re-warm and re-ice again,” he says.
Smith recommends doing this for the first 24 to 72 hours to keep the inflammatory process from getting out of hand. It goes without saying though, that if you are really concerned about how you feel, see your medical professional as soon as possible.
He concluded with a stern piece of professional advice: “Stay away from doing what you did to get it! Don’t go back to doing it tomorrow if (a part of your body) is killing you.”
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