Mary GrayP.E. for gardeners

I hate to bring this up, but sooner or later your body is going to rebel against the physical demands of gardening. It is not going to appreciate the fact that, within the course of an afternoon, you hauled 30 cubic feet of mulch on your back, bent to the ground from a standing position 167 times, and — on tiptoe – leaned forward while stretching waaaay out with your hedge clippers to reach the top of the damn yew hedge, so that the torque on your lower back was approximately 1200 foot-pounds per square inch, or however you measure that.

He will be sore tomorrow. (

Physical therapists, yogis, and other healthy types strongly advise against the strange contortions and repetitive stresses such as those we perform out in our gardens.

Bishops weed Photo H.Zell

I’m sure they would have advised me, during the summer of 2007, to spend 25+ hours sitting on my heels, bent over, digging, jabbing, tugging a decade’s worth of ‘Bishop’s Weed’ out of my back garden. That backache hasn’t really gone away.

The trouble is, it’s basically impossible to avoid some these stressful postures and movements if you want to garden. Gardeners have to bend, lift, kneel, reach, pull, possibly even lunge, thrust, and/or dismount, depending on your gardening style.

I’ve recently been on a quest to find an exercise regime that will help me weather the physical stresses of gardening so that I can keep doing what I love for the next couple of decades at least.  With all respect to the disabled, the idea of designing my garden as a series of raised beds with wheelchair access just depresses me, as does resigning myself to having MowCow in for a weekly Chop ‘n’ Blow while I sit watching  from the window in a state of arthritic semi-paralysis.

No, I need to stay healthy.

Does anybody have any exercise advice for me? My biggest concern is that my body is no longer “in balance.” My stomach is weak and flabby (how did THAT happen?) and therefore I think I could pretty easily throw my back out if I try to lift anything too heavy. Also, I’m pretty sure my right side is stronger than my left, and I suspect this sort of asymmetry is frowned upon in fitness circles.

A gardener needs a strong “core” and mine is somewhat, er, rotted. Nor am I limber.  If a ballet dancer’s body is as malleable as a piece of Bubble Yum on a summer day, mine is like stale Saltwater Taffy sitting in the fridge. (Note: don’t be intimidated by my use of metaphor; I am a professional English teacher, remember.)

Anyway, I suspect some combination of strength training and stretching is in order. Strong muscles to help stabilize the body, and stretching to keep the muscles from tightening and becoming (note the medical terminology) “out of whack” due to strenuous and repetitive use.

What occurs to me as I explore the possibility of exercise is that, as an avid gardener, I now see exercise as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. In the past I’d think: “Running is cool!  I’ll be a runner!”  “I love exercising to music!  I’ll do Jazzercise!”  “These videos will give me killer glutes!”

I used to choose exercise based on how much weight I could lose, who else was doing it, what sort of cool gear went along with it, and (I hate to admit it) how it might impress others. (Not that I ever impressed anybody with my 14 minute miles or my Jazzercise Grapevines.)

In contrast, now I am asking: Will doing this exercise help me to chop through 3-inch roots with my mattock? Will it help me prevent a full-body spasm when I have to reach waaaaay up high to tie up a rose cane? Will it give me the stamina to weed my entire shade bed and still have the energy to prepare Pasta-roni for the family?

Yoga class for gardeners. Impale one another with your tools as you limber up!

I guess when you think about it, it’s no different from the way serious athletes cross-train to enhance their performance in the sport they love. Runners bike to balance out their leg muscles. Golfers stretch and lift weights to improve their swing. Professional ball-players cross-train with Nautilus, dogfighting, and gambling.

I’m going to do the same. It’s just that gardening is my sport.

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8 thoughts on “P.E. for gardeners

  1. For sure you should do some core and weight exercise some stretches i find are a good way to start the day also.
    By the way that is a great article you have posted.

  2. Interesting post, Mary. I too want to have a enduring and fit body for all gardening demands and so practise yoga.Great postures for for core strength – and upper body . I think the meditative aspects of gardening far outweigh those of yoga, though. One thing, I have good flexibility and can touch toes easily, so tend to bend from the waist for gardening chores, rather than squat, as my 50-plus year old knees don’t like the pressure of that. Not sure if this is truly wise.

  3. Mary, your post is sadly very apt for me as I nurse a grim combination of tennis elbow and rotator cuff injury in my right arm. I doubt if there’s anything that would have prevented it except KNOWING WHEN TO STOP. It is too tempting for me, with limited time at our remote garden (three hours’ drive away), to work from sun-up to sun-down, and in the west of Scotland in summer, that’s a lot of hours. I am now trying to learn to do much more with my left hand and arm, both in the garden and around the house, in the hope that this might at least spread the wear and tear a bit more evenly. (Some things, for example stirring a pot, are surprisingly difficult!)

  4. Thanks for the feedback everyone. Yoga and/or Pilates seem like good options (though I love Julie’s comment that gardening is better meditation than yoga–totally agree!). For back pain specifically, I did buy a great book one time called Back Rx. The exercises it recommended helped me get over some chronic kid-and-gardening related lower back pain.

  5. Definitely yoga!! And regularly too. Keeps me flexible and strong. Without it I would definitely not be gardening frequently as I do now.

  6. Hi Mary, try the Feldenkrais Movement method. There’s even a cd especially for gardeners. I’ve got it – it’s brilliant. Very gentle, can do at home and all about being able to do what you love more easily instead of hanging up the gloves when you feel decrepitude creeping in…

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