One of the reasons gardening is such a good exercise is that the sheer joy of it disguises how hard you’re working, so you end up exerting yourself more than you would at the gym. Scientific studies demonstrate this – not that I need proof. When I manage to steal a moment to prune a tangle of triffids, I have trouble stopping. Before I know it, I’ve been waving a chainsaw aloft on a pole for four hours.
The only downside is that the endless yanking, pushing, lifting and bending can lead to, or exacerbate, aches and pains. NHS Digital figures for 2020-21 (AKA the great lockdown gardening and DIY boom) record 12,355 admissions to hospital in England with injuries related to “overexertion and strenuous or repetitive movements”. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Madeline Hooper, a retired PR executive who lives in the Hudson Valley north of New York, reached a point where she could no longer ignore her sore neck. “I love gardening,” she says, “and it doesn’t matter how long it takes to weed the bed – I’m weeding the whole bed. But I had terrible neck and upper shoulder pain.” Being a can-do type, she sought help from personal trainer Jeff Hughes, whose simple, commonsense approach worked. The pair have now teamed up on a US TV show called GardenFit, in which they travel around America, admiring gardens while helping to educate the world about how to garden painlessly.
The first thing to know is that posture is everything. “If your head is back and your chest is puffed out and your shoulders are back and down, you feel tall and powerful,” says Hughes. “Whatever you do, you will incorporate the correct muscle, whereas when you hunch, you are incorporating muscles that aren’t designed to do that job. And that’s what we do when we get tired.”
Hooper’s technique was a perfect example of this. “Your shoulder lifts your arm,” says Hughes, “and your trapezius lifts your shoulder. If you’re doing something all day and your shoulder gets tired of lifting your arm, your body’s smart. It goes: what else can lift the arm? All of a sudden your trapezius is doing something it wasn’t designed to do, and of course your neck is going to hurt.” The solution is simple: “When your shoulder gets tired of lifting your arm, stop lifting your damn arm!
“As soon as you start recognizing that you can’t hold your posture correctly any more, do something on the ground, or grab the shovel and dig. Now you’re going in the opposite direction with your shoulders.”
British garden designer and TV presenter Danny Clarke follows a similar philosophy. “Keep swapping jobs,” he says. “I always say, ‘Little and often.'” He has his own sequence. “I don’t tear into the heavy lifting, or the digging. I’ll warm the body up by moving.” Coming from a sports background, he says, “I’m quite aware of my body, and what it can and can’t do.” For some, a mental adjustment is required to let go of completing a task in one session. “Don’t try to finish it, because the garden is never finished,” says Clarke, serenely. “That’s the beauty of it: it is infinite. Savor each moment. Enjoy it.”
Sometimes strengthening exercises are required to correct pain-inducing posture – Hughes recalls a gardener called Bob, who appears in the TV show with lower-back pain. “He didn’t stand up straight when he walked,” says Hughes. “The lower back is holding up everything above it, so if you’re hunched over, it’s getting strained.”
If this sounds like you, you might want to try this. “Relax your shoulders,” says Hughes. “Imagine that you have on your favorite pair of blue jeans and I want you to very slowly take your shoulder blades and slide them down into your back pockets.” This creates a pivot effect, where your chest puffs out, you breathe more easily and your spine is aligned. While holding this, he adds, “whatever muscle is starting to get tired right now, that’s your weak muscle that you need to strengthen”. The longer you hold this posture, he says, the more training those weak muscles will get, eventually enabling them to do their job automatically.
To wake these muscles up in Bob, Hughes gave him an elastic exercise band to hold out in front like handlebars, and then raise above his head. The effect was immediate, with Bob marvelling at his newfound ability to stand up straight. “Your whole perspective changes,” says Hughes, “because now your peripheral vision is better.” Hughes prescribed Bob four weeks of practicing his new posture, and briefly repeating some moves with his exercise band every day.
While you are working in your garden, allotment or community plot, with your shoulder blades in your back pockets, the next move to master is what Hooper and Hughes call “armchair”, which isnt as restful as it sounds but could save your back when you are bending or lifting. “If you spread your feet, you’re automatically closer to the ground,” says Hughes. “Everything drops down, and when you bend, your knees and butt stick out and you come down into a good squat base.” Then you rest your arms on your legs. “Now your lower back isnt holding your body up. If you apply that to the next eight hours, your back will be your best friend at the end of the day.”
When you use one arm for weeding or sowing, you can keep the other supporting arm resting on its leg, but switching arms is crucial. Hughes says it is essential to train your nondominant hand to do its fair share of the work. Not only will this spread the load on your arms and shoulders, but “you’re going to be balanced with your twisting; you’re starting to balance out your torso”. Similarly, if you’re on a ladder, he says: “Turn it around, so now you’re twisting the other way.”
Balance reappears in the pair’s final top tip, which they call the “seesaw” and involves, again, being more aware of your body while you are working. If you are reaching your arm out while holding heavy clippers, you need to counter that weight by holding the shoulder blade down, so that, says Hughes: “You can match the pressure here with the pressure there, like a little seesaw bounce effect. “
Hooper says that within four weeks of integrating Hughes’s fixes into her life, healthier habits had embedded themselves and she started to feel better. “After six weeks, I never had pain again from gardening.
“I wish I had learned this when I first started to garden,” says Hooper. In all the gardening courses and books she has completed, she says, “nobody teaches this”.