Stay healthy by treating gardening like it's a sport

Lynne Brick loves to garden — and she knows how to stay healthy and safe while she's digging in the dirt.

Brick, a veteran gardener and the president and founder of the local gym chains Brick Bodies and Lynne Brick's Women's Health and Fitness, knows that gardening is no lazy hobby. It can be a great workout and enjoyable pastime, but it can also be a source of pain and difficulties.


"Gardening is a great way to be active," says Brick. "It's a combination of strength, flexibility and endurance training. It's not something any participant should take lightly — it requires muscular and cardiovascular endurance."

Brick isn't alone in her love of gardening. According to the National Gardening Association, about 100 million American households have some type of home garden and in 2009, 43 million households had food gardens.

Home food gardeners tend to be somewhat older than the average American; 68 percent are 45 or older. "It's especially important to stretch before gardening if you're middle-aged or older," warns Brick, noting that the bending and lifting associated with gardening can be tough on joints and previously injured muscles.

"People don't usually come to us just because of gardening," explains Wendy Quitasol of Baltimore's Mind Body Physical Therapy. "There's usually something underlying, but when they garden, it becomes an injury."

Kathie Fedele, also a physical therapist at Mind Body Physical Therapy, notes that staying in one position for too long may cause joint pain."If you're bent over gardening, every 20 minutes, move your body into the opposite position," she advises.

"Take breaks between activities," suggests Brick, who gardens carefully to avoid exacerbating an old back injury from her high-school field hockey days. "Roll your shoulders back, reset great posture, shake out your arms and legs and take deep breaths. Then you can get back to work. Even if you're in great shape, you're not necessarily in gardening shape. It requires twisting, turning and lifting — gardening uses different muscles than a barre class."

Physical problems may also arise when gardeners use inappropriate tools, warns Ray Moore of Physical Therapy First. "Select tools that are appropriately sized for you," he says. "If you're short, don't use a super-long shovel. Make the job as easy as possible for you."

But muscle and joint pain are not the only perils of working in the garden. Gardening outdoors, in the hot sun, can also lead to problems.

Sun and bugs

Master gardener Carole Langrall splits her time between Santa Fe, N.M., and Catonsville, where she owns A Garden of Earthly Delights floral studio. In both locations, she tries to avoid spending the hottest hours of the day outdoors. "I try to cut flowers early in the morning or late in the afternoon," she says. "The heat of the day is a problem."

"There's a risk of bad sunburns," warns Dr. Neal Frankel, head of the emergency department at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Hospital. Frankel recommends using sunscreen, wearing lightweight clothes and hats, and drinking plenty of fluids.

"Hydrating drinks serve a purpose," he expands. "You don't have to get fancy or expensive, but with drinks, you want to replace the salt and potassium that come out with the water."

Frankel says that numerous common drugs, including some beta blockers and antibiotics, make people more photosensitive or inhibit the body's ability to sweat. Also, he warns that citrus juice can react with the sun, causing bad burns. So if you squeeze lemons or limes into your water, be sure to wash or cover your hands before exposing them to the sun.

Bugs may be a source of injury as well, advises Frankel. "One of the things we see are yellow jacket stings," he says. "They live in the ground, so when you pull up weeds, you get massive yellow jackets out of the ground. They're relentless and very vicious."


If you know you are allergic to bee stings, keep an epi pen close by, he says, adding, "if you feel like you have to use an epi pen, call 911."

"You can't have a garden without being careful about tick exposures," he adds. After gardening, check your body, including your head, for ticks. If you find one right away and are able to remove the entire bug by using tweezers to gently pull it away from the skin, you have little cause for concern.

"The earlier you identify the tick, the better and the less risk of transmitting Lyme disease," says Frankel.

Plant safety

Even plants themselves can be hazardous to gardeners on occasion. Poison ivy and other poisonous plants transfer oils to the human body that may cause rashes or other painful symptoms. "If you realize early enough, there are products you can use to wash off the oils," says Frankel. These products, like Zanfel Poison Ivy Wash, are available at drugstores.

Frankel also warns gardeners to wash — or throw away — any clothes that come in contact with toxic plants. "Spreading could be due to re-exposure," he explains. "Not only do you need to get it off your skin, you have to do something about the clothes, sneakers and everything you're wearing."

Carole Langrall loves working with the tall native grasses of the Chesapeake region, but she concedes that they can be tough to cut from the garden.

"I cut myself so many times. They're really sharp — it's like a paper cut," she says. To avoid such cuts, Langrall recommends working slowly, wearing gloves, and taking care of your eyes and face. "As soon as the grasses get really tall, which they invariably do, they can be a real menace."

Even with lurking dangers, from back pain to poison plants, gardening is a fun, relaxing, enjoyable hobby. "We have a garden for a reason," reminds Wendy Quitasol. "Go out and enjoy it!"

With care, attention and patience, garden hazards are nothing more than minor nuisances.


As you while away the summer days in your garden, consider these expert tips for planning the healthiest gardening session, from start to finish:

Warm up: Experts recommend approaching a gardening session the same way you would approach a workout. Start with warm-up stretches focusing on major muscles —Brick Bodies owner Lynne Brick recommends arm circles, knee lifts, squats and back releases — and heat applied to potential problem areas.

Be patient: "Start small," says Brick. "Don't plant a humungous garden all at one time –—work your way up gradually. Allow yourself to savor the moment." Master gardener Carole Langrall agrees, noting that many injures arise from planting or cutting too quickly. "Moving fast is when you get injured," she says. "Take your time."

Mix it up: Brick suggests doing several different types of activities during each 30-minute stretch of gardening. "Spend a few minutes digging then raking then clipping or pruning," she says. "And take one to two minute breaks in between activities. "Repetitive motion causes stress to joints," she says, "and if you mix it up, you don't get bored doing the same thing."

Listen to your body: Experts emphasize the importance of good posture, correct body mechanics and not overdoing it when gardening. "You have curves in your spine to help distribute weight and act as a shock absorber," says Kathy Fedele of Mind Body Physical Therapy. She cautions gardeners to be conscious of their movements, making sure they do not overextend or stay in one position for too long — and she reminds gardeners to engage their core to take pressure off the back. Ray Moore of Physical Therapy First agrees, saying it is important to keep a "neutral spine" and to "lift with your legs — not with your back!"


Cool down: After you finish, do a few cool-down exercises to stretch muscles in the opposite direction from how they have been positioned during the session. Ice down any areas that hurt. "If you really feel exhausted, take a hot mineral bath with Epsom salts," says Brick. "It'll help rejuvenate your mind, body and spirit."


Gardening is easier — and more fun — with the proper gear:

Gloves: "Wear garden gloves," says master gardener Carole Langrall, who has firsthand knowledge of the painful cuts that sharp-edged plants (like Maryland's tall native grasses) can cause.

Adjustable tools: Look for tools that can be adjusted to best suit your height and size — and be sure to use the tool that's right for the job. "If you're mulching, you don't want a shovel," says Dr. Neal Frankel, from the emergency department at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Hospital. "A lot of people exacerbate back injuries by not using the proper techniques."

Water: Staying hydrated is critical to staying healthy, so keep water or sports drinks nearby and don't forget to drink. "The more you dehydrate, the more your muscles tense," says Frankel.

Hats, lightweight clothing and sunscreen: Protect your body from the sun using all the tools available. Keep yourself covered, but make sure your clothes are light and breathable.

Stools and pads: "Gardening pads seem silly, but they're not," says Wendy Quitasol of Mind Body Physical Therapy. "They're actually very helpful." Quitasol recommends using tools like stools and pads to relieve pressure on the back and joints.