The importance of stretching when gardening

Make sure you warm up and stretch like you would for other activities!

By Emma Murphy, Master Gardener

(Disclaimer – The information provided is for general educational purposes only and not intended as medical advice; please discuss your personal situation with a medical professional)

The last time I was at my physiotherapist she said that more than half the cases she sees in April and May are related to gardening and sports injuries. People rush into doing things too quickly and most injuries could have been avoided by simply stretching properly to warm the body up.

“The secret to a healthy garden is a healthy gardener.”

Canadian Physiotherapy Association

Gardening is wonderful for your physical, mental, and emotional health, but if you don’t take care to stretch your body before spending time crouching, bending, and pulling weeds, you’ll end up feeling stiff and sore or potentially injuring yourself. This is especially important at the beginning of the season when we’ve been less active over winter but are overly enthusiastic to get into our gardens and complete all our spring tasks.

A stretching routine before and after gardening helps to minimize muscle imbalances, prevent injury, and improve your ability to garden for longer periods.

A warm up and stretches are critical to avoiding injury, particularly as we get older.

First, take a walk around your garden (or around the block) for 5 to 10 minutes to warm up your large muscle groups. The best stretches prior to gardening are dynamic stretches because they prepare your muscles for the repetitive movements required with gardening. After you finish gardening static stretches are better to improve your overall flexibility. Read more here.

This warm up will raise your heart rate and body temperature, as well as giving you an opportunity to assess your gardening situation and think about your plan for tackling the tasks ahead.

Yawning and stretching at the same time – cats are multitaskers!
(the cat stretch is great for your back as well) #gratuitouscatphoto

An excellent resource is this Michigan State University Rehabilitation Department page. Don’t let the name fool you – these recommendations and terrific embedded videos, as well as the brochure show you how to avoid having to pay them a visit!!

Source: Michigan State University Rehabilitation (https://rehab.msu.edu/media/tips/Gardening_Brochure.pdf)

Here’s some of the key videos:

MSU Gardening Warmup – Upper Extremities

MSU Gardening Functional Five

MSU Gardening Cool Down

And one more from the Marshfield Clinic Health System

Cindy Haynes of the Iowa State University Department of Horticulture has some great advice on preparing your body for the gardening season ahead. Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor at the University of Vermont’s Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science lists a number of stretches in this article.

The SouthEast Wisconsin Master Gardeners teamed up with the University of Wisconsin – Extension department to create this informative body mechanics brochure which includes both stretches and tips for various activities like bending, lifting, and turning.

If you suffer from arthritis, this publication by the U.S. National AgrAbility Project called Arthritis and Gardening contains information about arthritis, how it affects gardening activities, and things you can do to minimize its effects.

A few final words from my own experience:

  • Make sure you always have enough water with you and drink plenty of it, particularly in the summer months. Dehydration can impede your body function and lead to aches and pains. Read more detail here.
  • While doing repetitive activities, limit any one to 20 minutes, then take a 5 minute break and stretch. Then your next activity should not involve the same muscle group. So weed for 20 minutes, stretch, then rake for 20 minutes.
  • After a busy day gardening and completing some static stretches, a warm bath with Epsom salts does the body a lot of good.

Gardening is a great activity for maintaining and improving your body’s range of motion, bone density and muscle strength, and joint flexibility, not to mention the benefits of reducing stress and anxiety, which we are all dealing with during this pandemic.

At Sergeant Phil Esterhaus used to say on the TV show Hill Street Blues “Let’s be careful out there”.

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