March 21, 2010 in Features

Getting your gardener in shape

Stretching helps prevent aches after long winter
Susan Mulvihill Correspondent

Working the hands
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Gardener stretches

Upper body:

Extend your right hand out in front of you and stretch through the palm. Do this on both sides. Then interlace your fingers in front of your body, reach up high, push out and round your upper back. Then move your shoulders side to side.

Drop your arms down to your sides. Make a fist with each hand and turn them so they face to the back and side; move your fists up and down.

Lower body:

While standing, rest your hands on the back of a chair or kitchen counter. Put your right foot forward and the left back. Bend at the right knee while keeping the left knee straight. Don’t bend at the waist. Keep the left heel on the floor to get a good stretch in the calf. Repeat with the other side.

While standing at the chair, lift one heel to your buttocks and back down again to strengthen the back of your leg. Repeat 10-20 times; do opposite side.

While sitting in a chair, bring your right knee into your chest. Sit up tall. Circle your foot in one direction, then the other. Point and flex your foot, turn the foot in and out, pull your knee as tight as you can into your chest and sit up very tall. Repeat with the left leg.

For the back:

Sit in a chair and open your legs very wide. Put your hands on your knees and stretch forward, bending through the hip. Keep your spine neutral and push yourself up. To amplify this exercise, bend over and take your right hand to your left shoe; hold for a few seconds. Put your right hand back on your knee, take the left hand and put it on your right shoe; hold. Bring feet together, cross your left leg over the right leg. Rotate your trunk and put your left arm on the back of the chair. Put your right arm on the outside of the left leg. Hold the stretch, turn your head as far as you can to stretch the neck as well. Repeat on the other side.

Tracy Lewis’ “7” stretch:

Stand behind a chair and hold onto it. Walk backward and lower your head between your arms. Make sure your feet are in front of your hips and push your hips back. Think about looking like the number “7.”

*Note: Discontinue any stretch that causes or increases pain.

Oh, the aches and pains of gardening. After a relatively inactive winter, we go overboard working out in the yard as soon as the nice weather hits.

“Gardeners tend to push themselves,” says personal trainer and Master Gardener Tracy Lewis. “By the end of the weekend, they’ve done too much. Their body can’t handle it and then they hurt.”

Lewis works with seniors to increase their fitness levels and advocates doing stretches before heading outdoors to prevent those aches and pains. (See accompanying information box for Lewis’ favorite stretches).

“Arms and hands should especially be stretched,” she says. “When you first start gardening in the spring, you are down on your knees pulling to get the weeds out of your beds or doing a lot of pruning. It’s good to get in the habit of stretching the muscles in your hands and wrists first.”

Longtime gardener and physical therapist Craig Smith, who is the director of physical and occupational therapy at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center, frequently treats gardeners who have done too much, too soon.

“I primarily see patients with back and shoulder injuries,” Smith says. “Some have knee problems so they are unable to bend down anymore, and gardeners with arthritic hands have problems holding onto tools that aren’t well-designed.”

Smith has valuable tips to help gardeners get the most out of their hobby and avoid injury. He feels it’s important to vary gardening activities frequently to use different muscle groups.

“Don’t overdo,” advises Smith. “Set a timer for 30 minutes – or shorter if you already have physical limitations – so you will limit yourself in doing certain tasks. Use a small container for weeding so you are forced to get up every now and then. That way you’ll make yourself move and get out of bad positions.”

When carrying objects, hold them close to your body to reduce the torque on your back, Smith adds. “Bend your knees and use the big muscles of your arms and legs to lift, not your back. If you have to carry something, divide it equally between your right and left sides if possible.”

Hoeing is also very hard on the body, especially if the soil is compacted. Smith suggests watering the ground first to loosen it up.

Gardeners with arthritis in their hands should consider purchasing adaptive tools available in garden centers. Raised beds are an ideal solution for those who have trouble with their knees and backs.

Both Lewis and Smith agree that gardeners should wear good shoes when they head out into the garden. While most tend to wear their old shoes, Lewis suggests dedicating a nice pair of shoes with good arch support in them just for gardening.

After all, we might as well look stylish while engaging in our favorite pastime, right?

Susan Mulvihill can be reached via e-mail at

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email