Gardening is a healthy lifestyle activity, in spades. It's not aerobic, and it won't grow your fitness the way running, walking and biking will, but it sure can produce lots of pleasure, not to mention zucchinis and tomatoes.
Gardening stretches and strengthens you. It helps you cultivate a calm, focused mind while putting all the major muscles of your body to work digging, lifting and carrying. Besides burning hundreds of calories an hour, gardening connects us to the earth, and it's that mindful exchange of energy — you plant; nature grows — that is so joyful and satisfying.
Weeding, hauling compost, bagging leaves — these are a few of the root activities involved in growing your own food and flowers. The problem is, if you're not used to all that activity, and you do it in a careless way, you can strain your back, and hurt your wrists and shoulders.
WARM UP! To wake up your muscles and juice up your joints before you put them to work, do some simple movements. Focus on your arms, legs, hips, back, shoulders and neck. Move them gently through their range of motion. Shake out and stretch your wrists and hands. Scan your body for tight spots and mentally send energy there to release tension and rebalance. This mind-body warm-up is especially important for senior gardeners, because the older we get, the tighter we get, and tight, inflexible muscles can wake up screaming at you at 3 a.m. if you've overused them.
PROTECT YOUR KNEES. Buy a kneeling pad or make one out of old foam or a pillow. Knees are precious and need protection. And don't stay in the kneeling position too long. Take breaks. Flex and bend your knees from time to time to keep them juiced and happy.
PROTECT YOUR BACK. The smart thing to do is keep your back strong and flexible throughout the year so when you get in the garden, you are good to go ... and good to grow ... but alas, back problems are a blight across the land.
Move slowly, mindfully in the garden so you don't twist, torque, jerk or strain your back. If you do feel back pain, don't plow through it. Stop, relax, and if you can't proceed without pain (by engaging other muscles), then sigh deeply and let it go. Overuse leads to injuries. Leave the task for another person or another day.
LEARN TO LIFT. Before you lift a heavy load, think about the smart way to do it. Bend at your knees, not the waist. Keep your spine aligned, engage your core muscles and lift slowly, using your legs. When carrying heavy objects — a rock, a bag of leaves — keep your arms (and the objects) close to your body, not out in front of you. Listen to your inner gardener. If it thinks something is too heavy to lift, it is.
BEND AND BREATHE. When you shovel dirt or spread fertilizer, remember to bend your knees and step into the action. Don't hold your breath and stiffen up. Working in a garden is all about going with the flow. Your breath is your ally. Play with it. Inhale deeply and exhale fully, releasing stagnation and connecting to the earth energy around you.
DRINK WATER AND AVOID TOO MUCH SUN. I personally don't like the idea of smearing on a lot of chemical-laden sunscreen and then baking it into my skin. I advise you to choose the purest, most protective sunscreen you can find (the one with the least chemicals.) Wear a hat or visor to protect your face, and a good pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes. And make sure you and your plants enjoy plenty of water.
USE YOUR ENERGY. The more energy you put into gardening, the more calories you burn. So go for manual clippers, mowers and trimmers, instead of the electric kind. Look for ones that are ergonomically correct, designed to lessen the strain on your body.
If you don't have land for a solo garden, you can still reap the benefits by joining a community garden and plotting with others who know the value and goodness of growing and eating fresh, real food.
Bliss is that first bite of your own-grown luscious tomato.
ENERGY EXPRESS-O! DIG THIS "Why try to explain miracles to kids when you can just have them plant a garden?" — Robert Brault
Marilynn Preston — healthy lifestyle coach and Emmy-winning producer — is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She has a website, marilynnpreston.com, and welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to [email protected] She also produces EnExTV, a digital reincarnation of her award-winning TV series about sports, fitness and adventure, for kids of all ages, at youtube.com/EnExTV and facebook.com/EnExTV. To find out more about Preston and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.