Caution: Garden can be hard work

Whether it's planting, weeding or harvesting, gardening is exercise


Health & Fitness

July 08, 2005|By Mary Beth Regan | Mary Beth Regan,Special to the Sun

Early one recent morning, master gardeners JoAnn Russo and Vickie Goeller are bending, stretching and reaching for the spoils of their labor: bright chard, sturdy string beans, tangy rattail radish.

These women and other volunteers help maintain five historic vegetable gardens at the Howard County Conservancy at Mount Pleasant, a 232-acre farm protected in the midst of a spreading suburbia.

Like millions of gardeners, Russo and Goeller occasionally overdo it and wake up the next day with sore backs, necks and legs. While gardening is often soothing and therapeutic, these women know as well as anyone that it's also hard work and considerable exercise.

"Gardening is a physical activity," says Dr. David Baras, a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist in Florida who treats many gardeners. "Just like someone who runs or walks, you have to be prepared."

That preparation means stretching and using good gardening techniques to avoid injuries, experts say. Doctors also recommend using ergonomic tools to reduce repetitive motion injuries. With planning and proper tools, gardeners can tend their crops and flowers without pain or injury and enjoy all the health benefits of staying active.

"Don't get me wrong; we have our blisters, poison ivy and sunburn," says Goeller, who works weekly at the vegetable garden. "But I couldn't imagine my life without gardening."

A popular activity

Gardening has long been one of the most popular forms of exercise in the United States. About three-fourths of households -- about 84 million households -- participate in lawn-care or gardening activities each year, according to the National Gardening Association. The largest percentage, about 32 percent, comprises households of people 55 years old or older.

Older Americans have time and money to garden, says Bruce Butterfield, the gardening association's research director. And they also can reap health benefits from gardening.

Medical studies have shown that gardening can improve health and provide invaluable exercise. For example, a 180-pound person will burn about 182 calories while weeding, according to the gardening association.

Advocacy groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons and the Arthritis Foundation encourage gardening to help Americans battle conditions such as osteoarthritis, heart disease and high blood pressure.

"Gardening is a great activity for maintaining joint flexibility, bone density and range of motion," says Kerry Spivey, an Arthritis Foundation spokeswoman. And University of Arkansas researchers have found that gardening ranks as high as weight training for strengthening bones in women age 50 and older.

Gardening also helps people emotionally because it gives them a sense of order and control, according to the National Gardening Association.

"Gardening is such a stress releaser," says Howard County's Vickie Goeller. "There's something so satisfying about plant-ing a seed and seeing it grow into something beautiful."

Still, doctors say, they often see people make common mistakes that lead to injuries. Weekend weed warriors who try to landscape their yards in an afternoon often overextend and end up with strains, sprains or muscle injuries.

Rehabilitation specialist Baras, a marathoner, says he warms up for gardening as he does for running. He may walk, swim and stretch before taking to his back yard. "Some people think this sounds silly," he says, "but it cuts down on soft-tissue injuries."

The most common gardening injuries include strains and sprains, repetitive-motion injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome or tennis elbow, and pinched nerves, says Baras.

"We often see someone who complains of generalized pains," he says. "Then you find out they've spent four to six hours Sunday harvesting tomato and pepper plants, when they haven't exercised in a while."

For minor sprains, Baras advises cold compresses and rest. Contact a doctor, he says, if symptoms are more serious: numb hands or feet, tingling sensations such as pins and needles or extreme wrist or finger pain.

Sometimes, simple aches can be an indication of more serious conditions such as osteoarthritis, which often strikes the elderly. Unlike rheumatoid arthritis, which is an autoimmune disease, osteoarthritis affects individual joints when the cartilage breaks down and bones begin to rub together.

Working with tools

Gardeners also can cause damage to fingers, wrists and elbows through repetitive motions with improperly fitted tools. Someone using clippers should make certain to do that activity for 10 minutes to 15 minutes, then switch to another activity, such as weeding, Baras suggests.

Ergonomically effective tools can help reduce repetitive-motion injuries. Look for products such as adjustable rakes, extendable pruners and easy-to-grip gardening forks and scissors. These will cut down on pressure to joints. One leading manufacturer, Fiskars, makes an entire line of ergonomically designed tools popular among many gardeners.

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