As April Showers bring May flowers, the pleasure of gardening entices many of us. Unfortunately, gardening without occasional time-outs can potentially tax your muscles and joints; this is true even if you’re agile and limber. Just think about it: some of the twisted and distorted positions you end up in are nothing less than acrobatic feats. But these positions can stress and strain your body.
That’s only part of the problem. Muscular fatigue and soreness also result from remaining in one position for too long or from repeating the same movement over and over, such as clenching your hand when you weed. And that’s exactly why a good rule of thumb is this: from time to time stop gardening and start stretching.
Let’s begin with back fatigue that results when you work in a forward bend for an extended time. It’s important that you occasionally stop to give it a break. One way to do this is to stand up with your feet slightly apart, hands placed in the small of your back, your fingertips pointing down for support. With your knees slightly flexed, gently press your chest forward to lift your breastbone upward just a bit.
If you do this motion correctly, you should experience a welcome stretch in your lower back. There’s no need to take this motion to an extreme arch of your back. In fact, it’s not recommended; excessive hyperextension (overarching) of the spine can compress the lumbar disks. Hold the stretch for about eight to ten seconds while breathing naturally and comfortably.
Another soothing stretch for a garden-weary back is the cat stretch. You might be familiar with this back-soothing movement, perhaps from an exercise or yoga class, but never considered doing it in the garden. Why not? You’re already on your hands and knees for much of your work anyway. It’s just a matter of staying there, pulling in your belly and rounding your back, not unlike a cat’s long, slow stretch after a nap. Make certain that you lower your head and tuck your chin into your chest so there’s no strain on your neck.
To stretch your lower back still more, you can go directly from the cat stretch into a follow-up stretch by lowering your buttocks until they rest on or near your heels. Keep your head low and arms stretched in front.
A quick and easy stretch is to do shoulder rotations. In addition, also do slow shoulder shrugs, which gently, but effectively stretch the trapezius and rhomboid muscles located in the back of the neck and upper part of the back. To do the shrugs correctly, you slowly raise your shoulders toward your ears as far as you can without straining (you can do this while standing or seated). The upward movement should take about five seconds, so don’t rush through it. Then let your shoulders slowly lower to their neutral position. Do three or four shrugs, making sure that you relax completely between each repetition, until the tightness is gone.
Another stretch for relaxing the upper back is the following: With your feet comfortably apart and your hands resting on your waist, slowly press your elbows back bringing them as close together behind you as you can without straining. If you do this simple movement correctly and slowly, you will feel a pleasing stretch between your shoulder blades and across your chest. Again, it only takes a few repetitions.
To relax shoulder and upper back muscles that tire when you dig for too long, particularly when the ground is hard and dry, put your tool down and place the tips of your fingers on your shoulders, right hand on right shoulder, left hand on left. Keeping your hands in place, slowly bring your elbows together at shoulder level, trying to touch them in front of your chin. A slow closing and opening motion, repeated several times, does wonders for relieving fatigue in the upper back.
Another shoulder stretch is done by placing your right hand on your left shoulder, with your elbow raised at approximately shoulder level. Using the heel of the left hand, you pull the right elbow slowly across your chest toward the left shoulder, keeping the elbow parallel to the ground. Hold the stretch for about five seconds and then repeat it on the other side. This therapeutic stretch relieves upper arm and shoulder fatigue.
Jenny Nickerson, LMT
Certified Neuromuscular Therapist