Root Down With Gardening

By Marilynn Preston

February 14, 2020 5 min read

Gardening is what well-being feels like, in spades. It's not aerobic, and it won't boost your fitness the way running, swimming and biking will, but it produces lots of pleasure, not to mention zucchinis, basil and the sweetest baby tomatoes you'll ever taste.

"I cannot say exactly how nature exerts its calming and organizing effects on our brains," writes neurologist Oliver Sacks, "but I have seen in my patients the restorative and healing powers of nature and gardens."

Couldn't we all use a little healing these days? Gardening helps you cultivate a peaceful and focused mind while putting all the major muscles of your body to work digging, lifting and carrying.

Not only does it stretch you and strengthen you, it grounds you to the earth, and it's that subtle, inspiring 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 benefits are legendary, but there are risks, too. If you garden in a careless way, you can strain your back and hurt your wrists and shoulders. As your most personal trainer, allow me to plant a few seeds of caution:

-- 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 warmup is especially important for senior gardeners, as 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.

-- CUSHION 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. Move slowly and 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 surrender. Overuse leads to injuries. Leave the task for another person or another day.

-- LEARN TO LIFT. Before you lift a heavy load, bend at your knees, not the waist. Keep your spine aligned, engage your core muscles and lift with awareness, 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.

-- BE CREATIVE. If you don't have the land for a solo garden, no problem. Plant pots or window boxes or join a community garden and plot with others who know the value and goodness of growing and eating fresh, real food.

And finally, get your kids involved. Growing stuff in a garden teaches them patience and persistence, and before you know it, they're giving up burgers and fries for kale smoothies and home-grown organic strawberries.

"Why try to explain miracles to kids," writes Robert Brault, "when you can just have them plant a garden."

ENERGY EXPRESS-0! I CAN DIG IT

"Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow cycles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace." -- May Sarton

Special note: After 43 years of writing this weekly column -- America's longest-running syndicated fitness column -- it's time for me to stop and tend to my own garden. It's been an honor and a blessing to serve you dear readers, for so long. I'll close with what I wrote on the dedication page of my book, "All Is Well: The Art {and Science} of Personal Well-Being" -- you've read it, right? -- "In gratitude to my readers. Without you, nothing."

Marilynn Preston's column, "Energy Express," can be found at www.creators.com.

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