Integrative bodyworker Janet Matthies explains her family’s love of gardening and her 5 favorite resistance exercises to keep you fit for a summer in the garden.
If you are at all like my family you are really putting some effort into thinking about what a healthy diet looks like. Some things you may be thinking about are the quality of the food you eat, where this food comes from, how it is grown, etc. In taking that a step further many families are considering the possibility of actually growing some of their own fruits and vegetables.
Gardening is one of those multi-faceted activities where you experience the joy of creation, whether it’s landscape design, flower beds, vegetables or fruit gardens, plus a whole lot more. Our family has been growing our own Victoria Garden for the past several years – it’s a healthy activity for all of us, nutritionally, physically, emotionally and spiritually and it just makes sense to us that if you grow the food you eat, and take care of it every step of the way from a seedling to the bountiful harvest that feeds your family, you will have an overall healthier diet. So, we eat higher quality produce, we keep moving so we stay fit while working hard and having fun, we make a contribution to the ecosystem and planet and, spiritually, gardening is like a moving meditation so it takes care of our soul too.
Gardening is great exercise and, as with any other physical activity, it’s important to build your fitness level before you start to garden vigorously in order to avoid strain or injury. It’s a good idea to exercise every day to limber up before you begin your work in the garden, and again after you’ve put in a good long day to remove any tension. In this article I will be sharing some resistance stretching and strength training tips specifically for gardening.
In early spring, to prepare for the busy growing season, start to increase your general overall movement. For many of us light cardio and basic fitness classes would be a perfect place to start. Light cardio could be walking indoors or outdoors, snowshoeing, or if you want to be creative you could try rebounding, bouncing to the rhythm of ‘70s lite rock in your living room like I do with my family. Some class options that gradually encourage movement like a gentle yoga, Pilates, or a stretch class at your local gym will get you out into the world and start to build stamina. Be creative and make moving fun by doing what you like. Any of these activities will begin to enliven your body and wake you up from the long winter’s nap!
A short resistance stretching and strength-training program is an ideal way to prevent potential injury as you spend more time tending your garden. The following exercises will increase your flexibility and strength and ensure you have a long, healthy and productive gardening season. During the spring and summer do some light cardio work to warm up, then after gardening try these 5 simple exercises. The exercises should take you no more than 30 minutes.
I have created short videos to take you through each of these basic exercises. If you are unsure of how to do any of the exercises, do take the time to watch them through. I would be happy to provide tips or answers if you have questions, please feel free to email me.
Stretch 1: Spine Twist with Gentle Hamstring Stretch
Stand with your feet hip distance apart, let your arms relax at your sides and slowly twist your upper body to the left and then to the right, repeating this motion back and forth. Your feet will lift onto the ball of the foot as you twist in each direction, and your arms, as they wrap round your body, should gently tap against your body. After twisting for a few minutes, slow down the twist until you are at a complete stop. Come to stillness and, closing your eyes, take a few deep breaths and bring your awareness to the sensations you feel in your body: your fingers may be tingling, your body, arms or head may feel warm. This is what energy feels like as it moves through your body.
Now, keep the same stance with your feet hip distance apart. Take a large breath in and, as you exhale, slowly reach down to touch the floor. You want to feel like your head, neck and spine are moving one vertebra at a time as you roll down to your lowest point. Hold this stretch, and gently shift your weight from the left leg to the right, moving mindfully and slowly, feeling the stretch in your hamstrings. After several shifts side to side, come back to center, take another deep breath and start to slowly roll yourself back up one vertebra at a time to a standing position.
Repeat the whole exercise 6-8 times.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine the brain meridian passes through the muscles that run down either side of your spine and the backs of your legs. This twist activates this meridian and helps keep those muscles fluid and moving, assuring a healthy back. This meridian also helps improve brain activity for mastering your gardening technique and strategy.
Stretch 2: Child’s Pose with Upper Back Stretch
Sit on your heels, bow down onto the floor as you extend your arms out fully in front of you resting on the floor. Place your forehead gently on the floor naturally where it rests, your body weight evenly distributed between your legs and arms, this is child’s pose. TIP: if this position feels uncomfortable, moving your knees further apart might help. Now, press down on the floor with the palms of your hands and, at the same time, push your upper back up towards the ceiling. Your body should remain still but the action of pressing down with the hands while simultaneously elevating the upper shoulders gives an amazing stretch to your upper back, beneath your shoulder blades, and under the arms all the way up to the armpits.
Repeat 6-8 times.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine this exercise will improve the energy flow of your skin meridian. This child’s pose stretch specifically builds strength and flexibility in the muscles of your upper arms and upper back while simultaneously strengthening your immune system. Immune system improvements will help you to repel insects and their bites, heal from sun damaged skin, and improve your ability to fight off infection.
Stretch 3: Hamstring Stretch
Lie on your back and grab the back of your right lower thigh (just above the knee), extend your left leg long on the floor as you slowly pull your straight right leg towards your head. As you are pulling your leg in, it will feel as if it is pressing away and doesn’t want to come closer to your head. As your arms pull against the direction your leg wants to go in, you are creating a ‘resistance action’ that will keep you in a safe range as you elongate and strengthen your hamstrings and help you avoid injury. The movement is small, but if you add a lifting motion (gently stretching your leg out of the hip socket) as you hold your right leg, the stretch will intensify. Repeat the exercise on the other side, with your right leg long on the floor and pulling your left leg towards your head.
TIP: If your hamstrings are very tight the resting leg may be bent with the foot flat on the floor, this will relieve some of the tension in the leg you are stretching.
Repeat 6-8 times on each side.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine this stretch improves the energy flow in the brain meridian. It will build flexibility and strength in the central hamstrings, encouraging a tension-free lower back. The hamstrings along with the muscle of the spine (see stretch #1) are important muscles to keep limber throughout the gardening season as any back pain will make gardening difficult. Hamstring flexibility and strength will help make your gardening movements effortless.
Stretch 4: Hip Stretch
Lie on your back, bend both legs and place your feet flat on the floor. Lift your right leg up off the floor and rest the outside of your ankle on the top of your left knee and let your right knee fall to the right.
Now grab ahold of your left leg at the thigh just above your knee, and slowly pull it in towards your head. This action will pull both legs towards your head together and you will feel a big stretch on the outside of your right hip. Repeat on the other side, with your left ankle resting on your right knee.
Repeat 6-8 times on each side.
TIP: You may also feel tension on the inside of your right leg, if this sensation feels like it is preventing you from stretching then it will benefit you to work on the inside leg first and then come back to this stretch. The Liver Meridian Stretch, for the inside leg muscles, is a good place to start.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine this exercise improves energy flow in the gallbladder meridian. This exercise will stretch and strengthen your outside hip and leg muscles where more pressure is often placed in our standing and upright postures. Improvement to hip flexibility and to the outside leg muscles will allow fluid movement during gardening as you move from the ground to standing, and in the upright side-to-side movement you make in watering, or just moving around your garden.
Stretch 5: Kneeling Quad Stretch
Place your mat directly against an upright surface such as a sofa (you could also use the wall or an ottoman). Put a folded blanket or towel on top of your mat, touching the sofa, as a bit of extra cushioning. Start by kneeling on your cushion, with your back to the sofa. Bring your right knee about 6 inches away from the sofa, and allow your right lower leg and foot to rest against the seat. The top of your foot will be poised to press against the sofa (use more distance than 6 inches if your thigh muscle is super tight). Place your left foot flat on the floor slightly further away from the sofa than you think it should be and use your hands for balance by resting them on top of your left knee. You should now be in a lunge position with the back leg already starting to stretch as it is bent and resting on the sofa.
To begin the stretch, press your leg and the top of your right foot into the sofa and slowly move your body weight towards your left leg while continuing to press your right foot into the sofa. You should feel a big stretch in your right thigh. Keep your back straight as you lunge forward also remembering to keep your chin down. Keep shifting from a lunge as you move back into an upright position against the sofa. If you are flexible your heel will touch your gluts when you push back from your lunge. Repeat on the other side, with your left leg resting on the sofa.
Repeat 6-8 times on each side.
In Traditional Chinese Medicine this exercise improves the energy passing through your stomach meridian. I have been told by my clients that this stretch alone is worth the price of admission – it is an amazing and effective way to stretch and strengthen your thigh muscles. The thighs need to have full range for gardening to allow for all that forward bending, kneeling, squatting and lifting you need to do. Stretching out the quads is a great way to regain balance from the front and back of the body which will allow for ease in forward and backward bending motions from the waist and knees.
As with any other physical activity, it’s important to build your fitness level before you start to garden vigorously in order to avoid strain or injury. It’s a good idea to do some light cardio activity every day to limber up before you begin your work in the garden, and to exercise to remove gardening body tension after you’ve put in a good long day.
I hope this article has been helpful. Please share your experience with gardening, sore muscles, strains, helpful tools, and your own pre-gardening warm-up. Gardening is enjoyed by many, and we will all enjoy it even better if we are proactive about how we care for our hardworking bodies.
22nd July 2014
JANET MATTHIES is a Boston-based Integrative Bodyworker, specializing in strength and flexibility. Since 2002, she has worked with highly-disciplined adults, teens and children who depend upon physical dexterity for their work or their chosen lifestyle, but who may be struggling with injury, pain or lack of strength and flexibility. People call her the ‘Crazy Stretching Lady’ because of her unique, unconventional way of combining Asian yoga with western resistance training. Janet started on this path when she saw young children getting injured in school sport programs due to insufficient knowledge about stretch training. Over the years, she’s helped many athletes and other active people improve their performance, gain confidence and eliminate injury issues from their lives. Her personal mission is to educate her clients so they can become independent, rather than dependent, upon doctors, chiropractors and other physical therapists – including herself.