By Laura Stewart
Working in the garden is a pastime enjoyed by people of all ages and abilities. “Getting your hands dirty” is not just about having an attractive backyard or a healthy supply of vegetables, but about reaping the physical and mental health benefits as well.
Gardening is a proven stress-buster, and has even been shown to improve the symptoms of depression. The wide range of movements involved in digging, planting, weeding and pruning are a form of low-impact exercise, and the benefits of being outdoors while taking deep breaths of fresh air are undeniably positive.
But even for healthy and fully-able gardeners there are some risks, including back, knee or hip strain, overuse injuries of the hands, insect bites, exhaustion, dehydration and sun damage. Underlying medical conditions, injuries or reduced mobility associated with aging can add further barriers to enjoying this beneficial activity. But don’t be discouraged. Try modifications to your habits and environment to help get you (or a loved one) back in touch with your green thumb.
Redesign your garden with your body in mind
The biggest barrier to gardening with a disability is being able to get down to dirt-level. Ideally, all gardening would be done at waist-height so that even wheelchair-users could have access. For those who want to continue gardening despite serious physical limitations, investing in one or more raised beds can make all the difference (see sidebar).
Reduce the size of existing garden plots to keep the work enjoyable and invigorating instead of daunting and discouraging or, worse still, exhausting or injurious. Making plots narrower will reduce the strain from reaching to the back of the bed for planting, weeding and pruning.
Use soaker hoses or install other methods of irrigation to limit the strain on your body from hauling hoses or lugging watering cans.
Container gardening is another wonderful option for seniors and anyone with reduced mobility. Planters placed above knee-height minimize bending and keep the workload manageable. And containers aren’t just for flowers—they are great for planting herbs and vegetables, too.
Caregivers might consider giving their loved ones preplanted containers with flowers or herbs to be placed on a table or window ledge. Even better, choose wheeled containers so that they are easier to move around.
Choose lightweight tools with thick grips to reduce the strain on hands, wrists and shoulders. Longer handles will lessen the amount of reaching you need to do. There are even adapted tools available for those with the use of only one hand.
Keep pruners and hoes clean and sharp so they require less strength to do their job. Pruners with a ratcheting action will reduce the strain on your hands.
Purchase a stool for sitting or a padded bench for kneeling, with hand grips to help you stand up. If you are able to maintain a kneeling position, soft knee pads will make it easier to kneel on hard ground.
Stick to a schedule
It is all too common to get into “the zone” and lose track of time, meaning the intended few minutes of weeding turn into a gardening marathon. To avoid this, ensure you break outdoor tasks into small pieces. Try taking 15 or 20 minutes per day to weed half a flowerbed each time, rather than spending two or three hours doing the entire backyard. Don’t wait until you are sore and exhausted to call it a day—set a time limit in advance.
Avoid gardening around midday. Get outside in the early morning or late afternoon, and take frequent breaks to drink plenty of water and stay hydrated. The key is to plan ahead, pace yourself and stick to your schedule!
Crouching or kneeling can aggravate trouble with your knees and hips; bending forward with straight legs can soon lead to an aching back; sitting on the ground may prove awkward when it comes time to stand up again. No one position is best. The key is to change positions and tasks frequently.
Exercises should be done before you start your outdoor work, or part-way through.
• Roll your shoulders forwards and backwards 10 times each way.
• Reach your arms up above your head as far as is comfortable. Take a deep breath to expand your chest, then exhale as you lower your arms to your sides. Repeat five to 10 times.
• While seated, rotate your head and torso to look behind you, reaching both arms as far as you can in the same direction without any discomfort. Hold for five seconds or so, then slowly return to the centre. Repeat five to 10 times in each direction, alternating sides and trying to reach a little further each time.
• Sitting in a chair, raise one leg, straightening it as far as is comfortable. Hold for a few seconds, then lower. Repeat 10 times, alternating legs.
• While seated, point and flex your feet and ankles 10 times. Then rotate your ankles slowly in a circle, repeating 10 times per direction.
Certain muscle groups will get tight after being in a forward bent position for prolonged periods. The front of your chest (pectoral muscles), the front of your hips (hip flexors) and the back of your legs (hamstrings) are all muscle groups that will benefit from a good stretch after time in the yard.
A reminder—no stretch should ever be painful. You should feel a mild yet comfortable tension in the muscle group you are stretching.
Chest stretch. With your arms straight out to your sides at shoulder height (or slightly below if that’s more comfortable) and your palms facing forward, reach your hands back, opening your chest and squeezing your shoulders down and back. Hold for at least 30 seconds, taking deep breaths to help expand your chest.
Hip flexor stretch. Lie on your back on a bed or firm couch, with your knees bent and your feet on the floor. Pull one knee to your chest and hold it comfortably with your arms. Let the other leg stretch straight out along the bed. You should feel a gentle pulling at the front of the hip of your straight leg, and probably a stretch in the leg you are pulling toward you as well. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat on
the other side.
Hamstring stretch. Lying on your back, pull one knee toward you so that your thigh is vertical. Hold behind this knee. Then, gently straighten your knee, using your hands to keep your thigh steady but trying not to pull. Stop when you feel a gentle stretch at the back of your leg. Hold for 30 seconds. Repeat with
the other leg.
Prioritize your health by limiting exertion. Consider delegating heavier tasks to a paid worker, or even filling in some beds. By setting limits, choosing tools carefully and perhaps making changes to your garden, you’ll hopefully experience the joys of gardening for years to come.
Laura Stewart, BScH, MScPT, is a physiotherapist working in both private homecare and community clinics in Toronto.