OOne of the reasons gardening is such a great exercise is that the sheer joy of it disguises how hard you work so that you end up exerting yourself more than at the gym. Scientific studies show this – not that I need proof. When I manage to steal a moment to prune a tangle of triffids, I struggle to stop. Before I know it, I’ve been swinging a chainsaw up a pole for four hours.
The only downside is that the endless jerking, pushing, lifting and bending can lead to pain or aggravation. NHS Digital figures for 2020-21 (aka the great lockdown gardening and DIY boom) record 12,355 hospital admissions in England with injuries related to “overexertion and heavy or repetitive movements”. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Madeline Hooper, a retired PR executive living in the Hudson Valley north of New York, reached a point where she could no longer ignore her sore neck. “I love gardening,” she says, “and it doesn’t matter how long it takes to weed the bed – I weed the whole bed. But I had terrible neck and shoulder pain.” Being a can-do type, she sought help from personal trainer Jeff Hughes, whose simple, sensible approach worked. The pair are now working together on an American TV show called GardenFit, in which they travel across America, admire gardens and help the world teach the world how to garden without pain.
The first thing to know is that attitude is everything. “When your head is back and your chest is swollen and your shoulders are back and down, you feel tall and strong,” Hughes says. “Whatever you do, you’re building the right muscle, while your hunch is picking up muscles that weren’t designed to do that job. And we do that when we get tired.”
Hooper’s technique was a perfect example of this. “Your shoulder lifts your arm,” says Hughes, “and your trapezius lifts your shoulder. If you’re doing something all day and your shoulder gets tired of lifting your arm, then your body is smart. It goes: what else can the arm lift? Suddenly your trapezius is doing something it wasn’t designed for, and of course your neck is going to hurt.” The solution is simple: “If your shoulder is tired of lifting your arm, stop lifting your damn arm!
“As soon as you notice that you can’t keep your posture right, do something on the ground, or take the shovel and dig. Now you go with your shoulders the other way.”
British garden designer and TV presenter Danny Clarke follows a similar philosophy. “Keep switching jobs,” he says. “I always say, ‘Little and often.'” He has his own order. “I’m not going to get into the heavy lifting or the digging. I will warm up the body by mowing.” With a sports background, he says, “I’m very aware of my body and what it can and cannot do.” For some, a mental adjustment is required to let go of completing a task in one session. “Don’t try to finish it, because the garden is never finished,” Clarke says serenely. “That’s the beauty of it: it’s infinite. Enjoy every moment. Enjoy it.”
Sometimes strengthening exercises are needed to correct a pain-causing posture—Hughes recalls a gardener named Bob, who appears on the TV show with lower back pain. “He didn’t stand up straight when he walked,” Hughes says. “The lower back holds everything up above it, so if you’re leaning forward, it gets tense.”
If this sounds like you, you might want to try this. “Relax your shoulders,” Hughes says. “Imagine you’re wearing your favorite jeans and I want you to take your shoulder blades very slowly and slide them into your back pockets.” This creates a twisting effect, where your chest swells, you breathe easier and your spine is aligned. While holding on to this, he adds, “whatever muscle is starting to get tired right now, that’s your weak muscle you need to strengthen”. The longer you hold this pose, he says, the more training those weak muscles will receive, eventually allowing them to do their job automatically.
To awaken these muscles in Bob, Hughes gave him an elastic exercise band to hold in front of him like a handlebar, then lift it over his head. The effect was immediate, and Bob marveled at his newfound ability to stand. “Your whole perspective changes,” Hughes says, “because your peripheral vision is better now.” Hughes prescribed Bob for four weeks to practice his new pose, briefly repeating a few moves each day with his exercise band.
While you’re working in your yard, allotment, or community plot, with your shoulder blades tucked into your back pockets, the next step is to master what Hooper and Hughes call “armchair,” which isn’t as soothing as it sounds, but your back when you bend or lift. “If you spread your feet, you’re automatically closer to the ground,” says Hughes. “Everything falls down, and when you bend, your knees and butt stick out and you get into a good squat base.” Then rest your arms on your legs. “Now your lower back isn’t holding your body up. If you apply that to the next eight hours, your back is your best friend at the end of the day.”
When using one arm for weeding or seeding, you can rest the other support arm on its leg, but switching arms is crucial. Hughes says it’s essential to train your non-dominant hand to do its share of the work. Not only will this spread the load on your arms and shoulders, but “you’ll be in balance with your twists; you begin to balance your torso.” Likewise, if you’re on a ladder, it’ll say, “Turn it over, so now you turn the other way.”
Balance reappears in the couple’s last top tip, which they call the “seesaw” and again involves being more aware of your body while you’re at work. If you extend your arm while holding heavy clippers, you have to counteract that weight by keeping the shoulder blade down, so that, Hughes says, “You can match the pressure here with the pressure there, like a little bounce effect from the seesaw. ”
Hooper says that within four weeks of integrating Hughes’ fixes into her life, healthier habits were ingrained and she began to feel better. “After six weeks, I have never had any more pain from gardening.
“I wish I had learned this when I first started gardening,” Hooper says. In all the gardening courses and books she has taken, she says “no one teaches this”.