The Healing Power of Gardening
Spring is here, and for many people that means a new season of gardening. But if you’re suffering with chronic pain, lifting a shovel or digging in the dirt might be the last thing you can imagine doing. The constant gripping, lifting and kneeling that comes with planting and tending to a garden can present a challenge for even the most physically fit. For someone living with pain, these repetitive and sometimes strenuous tasks can cause even more stress to already aching joints and muscles.
The good news is that pain doesn’t have to dampen the joy of spending time in the garden. Careful planning and simple adjustments to your routine can have you back out planting and pruning in no time, and you just might improve your health along the way.
“People get such pleasure from gardening, and it can be very good for overall health, so we don’t want to see anyone be forced to give up those benefits because their bodies are hurting too much,” said Amber Wolfe, national coordinator for the Arthritis Foundation AgrAbility Project.
Through a partnership between AgrAbility, a United States Department of Agriculture-sponsored program, and the Arthritis Foundation-Indiana Chapter, Wolfe and her colleagues work with farmers, ranchers and gardeners with arthritis to come up with strategies to help them reduce their pain while staying active outdoors.
AgrAbility staff members often spend an entire day on the farm or in the garden with a client observing their work and showing them what they can do to make things easier. They tailor the program to each individual’s needs and physical capabilities, focusing on modifications that can make the work simpler and lessen the impact on bones and joints.
While Wolfe works primarily with adults with arthritis, she says the program’s strategies can be helpful for any farmer or gardener dealing with a pain condition. For gardeners, Wolfe offers simple tips on how to arrange better garden workspaces to ease wear and tear on the body. She recommends:
- Focusing on smaller gardens
- Raising or lowering work surfaces
- Using ergonomic garden tools specifically designed to reduce injury or discomfort (for example, tools with extendable handles to minimize reaching and bending)
- Keeping water sources nearby to eliminate the need for carrying watering cans or dragging heavy hoses
- Choosing lower maintenance plants like perennials that bloom every year, so that it’s not necessary to replant each season
|“A lot of people don’t want to admit that pain is interfering with their abilities in the garden, and they just keep pushing themselves,” said Wolfe. “They’ll stay in the same position and weed for more than 30 minutes straight without taking a break, and they end up over-extending their muscles and abusing their bodies.”|
According to Wolfe, the biggest mistake people make in the garden is overexerting themselves and not taking proper rest periods.
To avoid overdoing it, Wolfe recommends:
- Warming up by doing some light stretches before gardening
- Breaking complex tasks into smaller chunks (for example, spreading projects that require heavy lifting or digging over several days instead of trying to do it all in one day)
- Alternating more strenuous activities with lighter ones
- Taking plenty of breaks
- Staying well-hydrated by drinking lots of water
Physical and Mental BenefitsGardening offers many health benefits. Regular physical activity can reduce the risks of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and high blood pressure, and research proves that gardening is no exception. “When it comes to strengthening bones, keeping weight off, and just staying active and healthy, gardening is right up there with going to the gym,” said Wolfe.
Like many other forms of exercise, when done properly, gardening works major muscle groups, builds strength and burns calories. It can help maintain joint flexibility and improve range of motion, coordination and memory.
And it’s not just the physical aspect of gardening that contributes to better health and well-being. Wolfe says that gardening can also provide safe and nutritious food options, enhance a person’s quality of life and even improve self-esteem.
“Nurturing something and watching it grow can be very therapeutic and rewarding,” said Wolfe. “It helps people take their minds off their pain and lets them feel that they are accomplishing something worthwhile.”
Gardening also engages the senses and helps people connect more deeply with nature. Research has shown that simply spending time outdoors and enjoying the sights and sounds of nature can have a calming effect by reducing stress and lowering blood pressure. In addition, being out in the sunshine can help boost vitamin D levels, critical for maintaining healthy bones. Perhaps the best thing about gardening is that almost anyone can do it in some form, regardless of physical limitations. For those who don’t have a big yard or are unable to get outside at all, there are many vegetables, herbs and flowers that do well in containers on patios and windowsills.
For more tips on healthy gardening, visit http://www.arthritis-ag.org/.
Sources: Arthritis Foundation, AgrAbility, WebMD
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Pain Community News.