Garden Calendar: Better gardening through stretching

Ever try to do a little too much gardening on those first glorious days of spring? The shrubs need pruning, mulch needs spreading, and the perennials are just begging to have last year’s foliage removed. You spend all day basking in the sunshine with your hands in the dirt, only to be too sore to enjoy much for two to three days afterward.

I used to think a sore back was just part of the gardening experience, but it turns out the pain is mostly preventable.

Prevention is relatively easy, too, according to Kevin Bird, owner of Bird Physical Therapy in Lawrence.

Most importantly, take plenty of breaks and stretch before and during garden work.

“Usually what I see are people being too vigorous in one of two areas: They go too hard or they go too long without taking breaks,” says Bird, who sees quite a few gardening- and landscaping-related injuries in spring and early summer.

Bird recommends easing into the first week of gardening with a 10-minute rest period for every 30 minutes of work. The second week, rest after every 45 minutes of gardening. In the third week or when it feels comfortable, work 60 minutes for every 10-minute break.

If you feel tired before 30 minutes go by, take a break whenever you feel it is necessary.

Take advantage of break times to stretch. Bird recommends several stretches (outlined below) to work back and leg muscles. Stretches can be done in the grass (pre-chigger season) or on a hard surface if you choose to stay outdoors. Indoor stretching may be done on a bed if the floor is uncomfortable.

Good body mechanics are also important. Lift with your legs and/or get help with heavy loads. Always push carts and wheelbarrows rather than pulling.

“Good supportive footwear is also really important,” Bird says. “Flip-flops are a definite no-no.”

Bird says barefoot gardening can be acceptable if the gardener is familiar with the environment. Crocs or similar shoes are OK if they fit well.

If you do end up with an injury, Bird recommends applying ice to the affected areas. There are also several wrist, back and elbow braces available that provide support.

“Gloves and kneepads and good sharp tools help, too,” says Bird, “and for equipment that vibrates, try anti-vibration gloves.”

With Bird’s recommendations, I am looking forward to what I anticipate to be a pain-free gardening season. I may still unload an entire truck of compost in a day, but this time I have a reason to take more breaks.

Bird’s stretching recommendations:

A stretch for all seasons:

Curt Welter, a physical therapist aide trainer with Bird Physical Therapy, demonstrates the angry cat stretch.

Angry Cat Stretch – On all fours, tuck chin and tighten stomach while arching the back. For pre-season and early season gardening, hold the stretch for 5 seconds before relaxing and repeat 30 times. When getting into heavier garden work, hold this stretch for 10 seconds and repeat 10 times.

Pre- and early-season gardening stretches:

Bridging – Lie on back with both knees bent. Lift buttocks, keeping the back straight and arms on the floor. Hold the stretch for 10 seconds and repeat 20 times.

Forward lunge – Standing, bring one leg forward with both knees bent. Shift weight onto heel of foot that is forward. Repeat 20 times, then switch legs.

Posterior leg stretch – Lie on back with both knees bent. Straighten one leg and lift as high as possible, then bend ankle toward you. Hold this stretch for 20 seconds and repeat four times, then switch legs.

Alternate arm and leg extension on all fours – Self-descriptive – raise opposite arm and leg while on all fours and hold them extended for five seconds. Repeat 15 times for each side.

One-leg balance – Standing, hold right ankle with right hand behind you, with left arm extended forward. Balance for 30 seconds and repeat five times, then switch sides.

The bridge.

Stretches for mid-season and break times:

Neck rotation – Turn head slowly to look over shoulder. Return to forward, then rotate slowly to look over other shoulder. Repeat five times.

Neck sideways bending – Gently tilt head to each side. Repeat five times.

Shoulder pumping – Stand straight with legs apart and arms relaxed at sides. Raise and lower shoulders as far as possible. Repeat ten times, gradually increasing to twenty repetitions.

Shoulder Roll – Similar to shoulder pumping, but roll shoulders backward continuously 10 times, gradually increasing to 20.

Healthy back stretch – Standing, keep feet apart and arms straight out from sides, then twist at waist as far as possible to one side. Twist to opposite side in one continuous sweeping movement without moving hips and legs. Repeat five times, increasing to ten repetitions.

All Fours, where arms and legs alternate.

Stretches for heavier garden work and break times:

Gastroc stretch: Standing with hands against wall or vertical surface, move right foot back and straighten leg, keeping left foot forward and left knee bent. With right heel on floor and turned slightly out, lean into the wall until stretch is felt in the calf muscle. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat three times with each leg.

Quadriceps stretch: While standing, pull right heel toward buttock until stretch is felt in front of thigh. Hold for 30 seconds, and repeat three times with each leg.

Hamstring stretch: Lie on back on with legs straight. Slowly lift right leg, and straighten knee while supporting thigh behind the knee. Hold for 30 seconds and repeat three times with each leg.

Wrist flexor stretch: Keeping right elbow straight and fingers pointing up, grasp right hand with the left and bend wrist back slowly until stretch is felt. Hold for 15 seconds and repeat three times with each hand.

Wrist Extensor stretch: Similar to wrist flexor stretch, but with fingers pointing down.