No Pain, Real Gain!
As much as we love our yards, let's face it: What we don't love is waking up stiff and sore after time spent working outside, either from overexertion or because we've used the wrong gadget or moved our bodies in the wrong way. "As soon as the weather gets nice, we want to get out and do everything," says Dr. Michael Marks, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. Luckily, there's a way to garden without aches and injuries. A few tools, a few tweaks, and a few inside tips will have you tackling your landscape to-do tasks without any morning-after regrets.
Save Your Hands
Melinda Myers loves touching the soil—digging holes for plants, deadheading and cutting flowers, even pulling weeds. Even so, the garden expert, author, and TV host has trained herself to wear gloves to protect her hands and arms throughout spring, summer, and fall. "I have a lot of gloves, and they change with the season and depending on what I'm doing," says Myers. "They really keep your hands from drying out and getting so beat up."
In the spring when the soil is wet, she relies on thick gloves to keep her hands from getting mucky. Long gloves are a lifesaver for protecting her forearms from thorns while she prunes roses, and soft, thin gloves equipped with pressure points prevent blisters from forming while Myers is doing repetitive tasks. Try on a few pairs to find ones that fit comfortably, breathe well, and give you enough dexterity to hold tools and plants.
Protect Your Skin
A good portion of her work time is spent outside, so sunscreen is a must for Myers, particularly on sensitive areas such as neck, face, and arms. Applying sunscreen should be part of everyone's gardening routine: More than two million people are diagnosed with skin cancer annually, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. To stay safe, choose a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Put it on 30 minutes before you go outside to work in the garden, every day, no matter if it's sunny or cloudy; reapply every two hours or immediately after you've sweated excessively. Even better: Plan your garden work time to avoid the high-sun, super-hot times between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. And take heed from Myers: Without fail, she schedules an annual checkup with her dermatologist.
Safeguard Your Head and Your Eyes
You can't put sunscreen on your hair or use it to shield your eyes. But you can protect your head with a hat and your eyes with sunglasses. Choose a hat with a brim that's at least three inches wide, which will help cover your neck, face, and eyes. Go for lightweight and breathable fabric, such as cotton, or a hat made with a wicking material to keep your head from getting too sweaty. Melinda Myers keeps a couple of different hats on hand depending on the gardening task and how much protection she needs.
When picking sunglasses, choose a pair that offer 100 percent ultraviolet protection; the lenses will also keep you from squinting in bright light.
There's a simple trick to maintaining your energy level while you're gardening: Stay hydrated. In addition to replacing fluids lost while you sweat, constant hydration helps you maintain your metabolism. "Gardening is a great way to burn calories—it's fun exercise," says Melinda Myers. "I have a couple of big water bottles that I fill with ice and keep by my tools or along the path where I'm working." Treat a water bottle like another gardening necessity: Invest in an inexpensive carabineer clip and use it to attach a water bottle to your garden tool bag. If you're working hard and sweating, try to drink about 6 ounces every 20 minutes or so. To create a hydration reminder, time yourself: Every half hour, take a five-minute cool-off, rest-in-the-shade break.
Be Kind to Your Knees
Dr. Michael Marks, an orthopedic surgeon, has plenty of patients that are puzzled by injuries related to outdoor work. "They'll tell me they are not athletic and don't understand why they've gotten hurt," says Dr. Marks. "But any physical activity can lead to an orthopedic problem." For gardeners, knees are prime targets for aches and pains: We bend down for all sorts of tasks, including weeding and planting. To nurture your knees, invest in an inexpensive foam kneeling pad or gel kneepads and keep them in your garden tool bag. "If you can find a way to keep everything together, you're more likely to use it," says garden expert Melinda Myers.
Use the Right Tool the Right Way
If you use a tool incorrectly or use the wrong tool for a job, the damage can be twofold: You can injure yourself and wreck the tool as well. "If you've invested in quality tools, you don't want to destroy them—and you want to save on aches and pains too," says garden author Myers. Look for pruners, shovels, rakes, and other garden necessities that have been designed with ergonomic, cushioned grips, and avoid taking tool shortcuts. Another word of advice: Your muscles will be a whole lot happier if you rent machinery for difficult jobs such as breaking up concrete or tilling soil. "If you try to do that with hammers and pick axes, you can create real problems for your shoulders and wrists," says Dr. Marks.
Get a Fragrance Boost
One of the more refreshing secrets Myers relies on is natural aromatherapy: She lines garden paths with fragrant lavender, bee balm, and sweet alyssum, and places containers of scented geraniums and heliotrope next to her laundry or close to her back door. "Gardeners were into aromatherapy before it was trendy," she says. "Fragrance can be so soothing, and gardening is a lot less painful when it smells good."
Plan a Circuit
One of the main reasons gardeners find themselves stiff and sore is repetition: They've done the same task, hour after hour, and stressed a group of muscles. "You wouldn't go to the gym and bench press for three straight hours," says Dr. Marks. Instead, look at your yard as a gym, with a series of different tasks that require a different muscle skill set: rake for an hour, weed for an hour, plant for an hour.
There may be a happy, if unintended, consequence says Melinda Myers: "You may not realize it, but you'll be able to extend your time in the garden." Or, instead of tackling your to-do tasks in big chunks of time, break it up into smaller increments: 15 minutes weeding while your kids are playing hide-and-seek, 10 minutes picking up yard debris while everyone's taking an afternoon nap. "With those small chunks of time you'll reduce muscle strain, and it can help if you're feeling overwhelmed," she says.
Schedule a Garden Round-Robin
One of the most valuable lessons Myers has learned is that no matter how green her thumb, sooner or later she needs help. Sometimes she's hired professionals for tasks such as mulching, but other times she's organized a gardening round-robin with friends. They'll rotate a few hours in one yard one week, then a few in another the following week. "An extra set of hands once or twice a year sometimes helps get your yard under control, and it's fun to socialize while you're sharing the burden," says Myers. She's even invited people who love to garden but don't have yards of their own. "They're dying to get their hands in the soil and want to help you," she says.
Lift the Right Way
Gardening may be difficult on the knees, but it can be torture on the back—especially if you do certain tasks incorrectly. "If something's heavy, like big bags of mulch, you need to get help lifting it," says Dr. Marks. If you're gardening solo, use a wheelbarrow to move dirt, compost, and mulch. To move containers, try a wagon or a plant lifter (which requires a helper). When you need to sit for tasks at ground level, don't sit cross-legged, he says; instead, flex your body forward and maintain good posture.
Designate a Ladder Spotter
Ladders can be a gardener's best friend—helping you to reach branches that need pruning or gutters that need cleaning. But incorrect use of ladders lands more than 164,000 people in the emergency room each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "It's really nice to think about stretching that last three inches instead of moving the ladder," says Dr. Marks. "But you can lose your footing and fall." Use these rules of thumb: Confine your work area to what's reachable only by normal extension of your arms, and designate a spotter at the bottom to make sure the ladder doesn't slip. And, always follow ladder precautions, including not using the very top as a step.
Don't be a Power-Tool Jerk
As much as power tools are helpful, they can also pose a serious danger—either because of carelessness or due to weekend warrior gardeners who think they're more proficient than they are. "I've seen people who have lost toes or fingers because they reach their hand in to dislodge something," says Dr. Marks. If the tool is connected to a power source, disconnect it entirely; if it is motorized, turn it off and remove the key. No matter what the power source is, allow the tool to cool down before handling the blade or other moving parts. While you're running the tool, wear safety goggles and heavy-duty gloves, too.
Elevate Your Beds and Containers
Stretching, bending, and twisting to reach flowerbeds and containers placed at ground level can strain your back and your knees. Raised beds and container platforms lift up your plants, enabling you to tend to them at close-to-standing height. Garden expert Melinda Myers elevates all her containers while she's planting them, even if they're intended for ground level. "It's what florists do, and it's a great way to see if the way you are mixing plants and colors is working well," she says.
Stretch After, Then Ice
Contrary to popular belief, stretching before you garden won't help you avoid stiff or strained muscles. "In a study we found that runners who stretched before they ran weren't injured any less," says Dr. Marks. What matters most is stretching after you've worked in the yard, when your muscles are in their cool-down phase. And if you've got an ache that won't go away, the worst thing you can do is apply a heating pad. "When you've exercised something, you put a lot of blood flow into the area," says Dr. Marks. "If you heat it up, more will flow there and you'll have more swelling." Instead, ice a sore area before you go to bed; you may wake up stiff but you'll still be functional.