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Safe Gardening for Seniors

Fresh air, sunshine, plants, and happy hormone releasing exercises are some of the main reasons why gardening is a favorite outdoor activity amongst seniors. It has the ability to reduce levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, by releasing hormones that control heart rate and breathing, restore muscle strength and dexterity, and even reducing the risk of stroke and heart attack by more than 30%!

As you gather your gardening tools with horticulture goals in mind, be cognizant of the impact aging has on your capacity for physical activity – even moderately-intensive exercise like gardening can be risky for your health, as it can exacerbate or create minor aches and pains in certain body parts. One key way to avoid this is by talking to your physical therapist, who can help you learn the fundamentals of proper body mechanics and avoid muscle impairments caused by strain, wear and tear, and injuries.

What exactly is “body mechanics?”

According to Mosby’s Medical Dictionary, “body mechanics is the field of physiology that studies muscular actions and the function of muscles in maintaining body posture.” In other words, it is the way in which our spine is positioned when we sit, stand, lift, carry, and bend, all of which are an instrumental part of gardening safety and maintaining quality of  life. Incorrect positioning of the spine can cause discomfort and pain and increases the likelihood of long-term damage to the body.

So, how can you still enjoy gardening while practicing proper body mechanics? Here are a few tips:

Stretch and Warm Up Your Muscles

Before you get started on your gardening work, warm up your muscles and joints to prepare them for physical activity. You can accomplish this by doing 5-10 minutes of light exercise, such as walking inside your home, taking a stroll through the neighborhood, or doing gentle total body stretching in place. Your warmup will increase your body temperature, which loosens your muscles for stretching. With warm muscles, you can comfortably and more easily stretch your body from top to bottom – shoulders, arms, wrists, upper and lower back, legs, and feet – to reduce soreness and injury after lifting, pulling, and pushing.

Create an Accessible and Well-Organized Workspace

Enjoyable, safe gardening for seniors has everything to do with accessibility – an unsafe garden that is difficult to navigate may result in an accident, causing you to be fearful of getting hurt again while doing the very thing you enjoy. To maintain a stress-free gardening environment, keep walkways clear of supplies to prevent trips and falls, and hang gardening tools or organize on a shelf for easy access. Also, keep your plant beds at a comfortable waist or hip level, if needed, to prevent bending over for long periods of time. The goal is to make sure your garden is convenient and well adapted for your physical needs.

Take Regular Breaks

Sitting, standing, or bending in your garden for too long can damage your posture and cause lower-limb muscle fatigue, as well as foot and back pain. Also, the motion of constant digging, planting, raking, and pruning can cause tendon or nerve irritation. To ensure you are not repeating the same motions over and over again over long periods of time, rotate tasks every 15 minutes and take regular, short breaks. Create a comfortable sitting area to rest in between activities and don’t forget to drink lots of water. Always listen to your body – it’ll let you know when it’s time to rest and when it’s a good time to get back to work.

Lift Heavier Items Properly

While gardening, you may need to lift a heavier item to move it from one place to the other. When preparing to pick the item up, such as a bag of soil or large watering can, keep your feet shoulder-width apart and squat down, bending only at the hip and knees. Posture is very important when lifting – make sure you look straight ahead, keep your back straight, keep your shoulders back, and pull in your stomach to get rid of the arch in your lower back. Keep the item close to your chest and do not attempt to raise it above your head to carry on your shoulders. When setting the item down, squat with your knees and hips only and carefully place the item as close to your body as possible as you place it on the ground. With practice, you will get used to this style of lifting and lowering, thus your body will feel more secure.

If you are experiencing pain while doing daily activities like gardening, walking, or working around the house, contact your physical therapist to discuss methods to relieve your pain. It’s amazing how simple adjustments to your posture can improve your body mechanics and give you a better quality of life. Exercise your green thumb and safely enjoy the health benefits of gardening this season!

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