How Does Your Garden Grow … and Your Body Feel?

by Peter on May 5, 2011

The Stongs plant sale signals the weekend I must have my garden ready. With family in tow, we went and picked out several plants and spent the weekend transforming the winter garden into a Spring madness of hoses, potted plants, weeding, trimming, hedging and lawn cutting. But after an entire weekend of working in the yard, my body let me know that spring is here and my exercise routine needs to be different.

Gardening is a pleasure that is hard to explain. Those of you who have one will understand, those that do not think the rest of us are weird. I will gladly use up precious sunny weekend days to make the yard look nice – and beat up my body in the process. How I look at some neighbors who have maintenance guys do the work for them in envy, yet have some perverse satisfaction in ending up with lower back pain from bending over more times in one day than doing massages, or shoulder pain from lifting pots, or tired legs from squatting and kneeing all day.

Those of you who have followed some of my exercise programs you will know that throughout the year I advocate cycling our exercise program. We want to make sure our posture is sound, our strength is good, and our endurance is well for all times of the year. Since March I have been touting to my patients the importance of our solid posture and exercise routine geared to getting ready for weekends of fun, gardening.

But is gardening really good exercise, and will it help you, my patient, that comes in because of hip, neck or shoulder pain? The question of what constitutes ‘good’ exercise is, of course, a relative one.  For those who spend most of their life quite and sedentary then almost any activity will be better for them.  Likewise, the elderly and those recovering from illness will benefit from gentler exercise than athletic types.  Gardening can be a great therapy for recovery.

For your average person, gardening offers the potential for increasing all-round fitness. If you follow my posts you will see that all the elements of a stronger posture involve squats, deadlifts (my number one exercise), lunges (stepping forward while carrying something), push, pull and twists.  These don’t have to involve any special gym equipment and are all very similar to the movements when doing some heavy garden work.  So digging, lifting, carrying and weeding can indeed constitute an excellent ‘whole-body workout’.

Research shows that gardening for 30-45 minutes most days of the week has significant health benefits, such as decreasing the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, as well as contributing to healthier bones, muscles and joints. Elements of gardening such as digging, weeding, trimming shrubs and mowing the lawn can require the same energy requirements as other physical exercise activities such as walking, cycling, swimming and aerobics.

Here are some simple exercises that mimic the motions and movements typically made during gardening. Try doing them as a circuit, going from one exercise to the next with little or no rest. Work up to 2 circuits, 3 times a week. Be sure to consult your Doctor or Health Care Practitioner before embarking on any of this. And if your posture is not optimal you can hurt yourself. Make sure to see your Neuromuscular Therapist to check posture, alignment and gait. If your off in any of these elements you’ll just strengthen a dysfunctional pattern.

“The Gardener’s Workout”

One arm rows with Swiss Ball

Begin with one knee on a Sissel Exercise Ball, with the opposite hand grip onto a Sissel Body Toning Bar, palm facing toward you, gaze toward the floor. The leg that is in contact with the floor is straight. Maintain a neutral spine and neck. Contract the abdominals and slowly raise the bar toward you, bringing elbow up toward the sky. Try to keep the elbow in toward the rib cage. Hold for 2 seconds. As you inhale slowly return to starting position. Repeat 10 to 15 times. Note that if you don’t have a Swiss ball around, use a garden bench. And use a weight or pot instead of the bar.

Rear delt raises with resistance band (ask me for a free band!)

It’s tough to work the back of the shoulder, but these rear delt raises offer a great way to target the posterior deltoids. The resistance band offers constant tension throughout the exercise and, because you’re doing it one arm at a time, you can really focus on the muscle. You’ll also work the upper back muscles (rhomboids and traps) for a bonus. Begin on all fours and place a resistance band on the floor in front of you. Hold one side of the band with the left hand and grab the other side with the right hand, keeping a few inches between the hands. Keep the left hand on the ground as you lift the right arm straight up to shoulder level, leading with the elbow and squeezing the back and shoulder. The knuckles should face the floor at the top of the movement. Adjust hand placement to increase or decrease tension and repeat all reps on the left arm and then switch to the right arm. Complete a total of 1-3 sets of 10-16 reps.

Lumbar extension

Start on your hands and knees, then extend your hip backwards until your thigh is parallel to the floor, keeping the knee slightly bent.  Pause at the top and slowly lower your leg and repeat for 10-15 reps. Try to keep your natural (neutral) spine position during the exercise, meaning, don’t let your lower back arch too much.  Keep your neck in a neutral position as well, not tucking your chin or looking up, picking a spot on the floor directly under your eyes to look at throughout.

The second part involves lifting the opposite arm while maintaining the same position (both knees on the ground).  Point your thumb up as you lift your straight arm towards the ceiling, pausing at the top for a second or two.  You should feel this in the muscles between your shoulderblade and the spine (rhomboids, middle and lower trapezius). Hold for 6–10 seconds. Slowly lower your arm and leg without loosing your neutral position. Repeat on the opposite side. Repeat on alternate sides 5–10 times each side.

Body weight squats

To perform body weight squats simply squat down pushing your butt back in keeping your knees behind your toes. Go down into your thighs are parallel or just a little below parallel with the ground and then stand straight up. Perform a few sets of 15 body weight squats and you will feel just how effective and intense this exercise can be.


Remember however, the intensity of garden work can also lead to problems.  In a recent newspaper article entitled Spring Gardening is a Dangerous Sport doctors warn of the potential for injury.  The principle of the British College of Osteopathic Medicine says that clinics experience a surge in garden-related injuries as the weather warms up.  “What happens is that people forget themselves and go in all gung-ho after the relative hibernation of the winter months, forgetting that their bodies need, like the gardens, to be coaxed in gently and limbered up over a period of time. People don’t associate gardening with danger which is the most dangerous thing of all.” Injuries such as gardener’s back, weeder’s wrist and pruner’s neck are all preventable if you start with gentler activities as you would for any exercise and ease yourself in to the new season’s work in stages.

And one last thing for those of you suffering with osteoarthritis. Studies have shown that gardening is actually good for your bone and joint health. Remember that osteoarthritis is not a disease but rather “a condition of the skeletal system typical of middle aged and older individuals.  It is usually caused by unhealthy biochemical reactions as the body attempts to correct postural and mechanical imbalances.

Happy gardening. Send me your pictures of your garden, and see you at the sale next year!


In Health,


Peter Roach, RMT, CNMT, Laser Therapist

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