Gardening: Strength in a labor of love

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Calling all green thumbs!  Gardening and yard work season is well upon us — and in  these times of pandemic home-bodying, even more of our clients are finding themselves intentionally in the dirt, whispering sweet nothings to the trees, seeds, and bees for a fruitful garden this season.  Gardening is so often a labor of love, some days weighing more on labor, as weeds don’t pull themselves, nor do holes self-dig, soil self-haul, or shrubs self-prune.  Even novice green thumbs can appreciate the array of movements and positions needed for respectable summer garden and yard upkeep– between squatting, kneeling, bending, lifting, reaching, pushing, pulling, carrying and so on, yard work and gardening demand some of the most fundamental movements that can also help improve a person’s functional strength and prevent injury.   Did you know that sneakily buried within gardening lies squat, deadlifts, planks, lunges – fundamentals of strength training?  A Japanese study in 2019 found a positive association between elderly individuals who participated in heavy gardening and farming practices and quadriceps strength, a measure commonly associated with functional status, risk for falls, disability and mortality.  This is hereby the last time a pansy gets reduced to itself as a mere pansy.  

Spring and summer are commonly a time where we as PTs and OTs often see an increase in clients coming in to see us with reports of garden-aggravated acute hip, back, neck, shoulder and wrist/hand pain.  While we know that many bodily systems can contribute to pain, including musculoskeletal and nervous systems, we see that an individual’s fitness and resilience may not be well-adapted to meet a demanding task.  We too often see patients are living through day-to-day routines—including gardening—  just shy of what we refer to as a ‘one repetition maximum,’ or when the physical demands of daily life are near or exceed a person’s capacity for one repetition of  movement. This is where routine activities require our most maximal efforts — as in having just enough ‘umph’ to be able to lift those leaves just once,  living one set of stairs away from feeling completely wiped out or a few pushes of the lawn mower before back pain and fatigue set in.  ‘Just enough for once’ is a functionally dangerous place for our confidence, capacity and independence, while feeding an internal culture of fear and angst.  And adding pain to the equation leaves very little for reserve, resilience and recovery in daily challenges.  As research suggests, fearful patterns can also perpetuate pain’s unwelcome transition to become more chronic.  However, holy green turf!  The good news is that we as humans are remarkably changeable and can improve our functional strength and endurance with appropriate training to far exceed the physical needs of our day. 

I’ll never forget when a patient came in with right lower back pain, explaining “that damn hoe got the best of me … umm, the tool, you know?” and we laughed and laughed about his troubling encounter with this particular garden hoe along with his near library of other hoes he had purchased. The pain-blame kept circling back to the tool itself:  that damn hoe caused my back pain.  And through our laughs, I aired my clinical grievances beyond the mere tool and challenged us to consider his hoeing strategies, movement patterns, functional strength and endurance, garden set up, and so on for this particular task.  He had clearly already arrived at a place of hoe-fear and hoe-shunning (relinquished to the shed), where the tool and task were the enemy and the cause of all painful woes.  Together, we made a plan that he’d soon reunite his beloved hoe with soil as we focused on better movement strategies, reducing pain, lessening fear, and improving his strength and confidence to take on physically challenging activities. 

The good news is, as PTs and OTs, we have so many tools in our own clinical garden shed, including critical attention to helping our clients regain the necessary functional strength and capacity to far exceed life’s daily demands, including a labor-intensive garden or yard.  Let us help your green thumbs (and torso, arms, legs and gardener’s mind) rise far above ‘just once’ capacity, attain greater strength, resilience and joy from the outdoor activities you love.

Dr. Gina Yeager is a physical therapist

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