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Safe and healthy gardening: More gain, less pain

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Gardening activity holds the promise of great rewards, but also risks to our health, says Exercise Physiologist Craig Cole, who advises residents concerning physical fitness in the Bethany Village retirement community in Centerville, Ohio.

Here’s Craig Cole on the WDTN-TV 2 Noon “Living Dayton” program on Monday, June 24, and a July 4 story in the Dayton Daily News.

Risks increase as our bodies age and become more susceptible to fatigue, sun and heat, cardiovascular issues, bruising, joint and muscle pain and bone damage.

But gardening can be fun, healthy and emotionally rewarding if we minimize the risks by following these healthy guidelines.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFirst, plan ahead for safe gardening:

  • Exercise during cold weather months, so your body is ready for outdoor activities
  • Stretch regularly
  • Replace heavy older tools with lightweight, strong tools, like shovels with fiberglass handles
  • Get kneeling cushions or a portable benchseat
  • Consider installing raised beds, to minimize bending
  • Ask for help gardening, or let a loved one or neighbor know you will be outside working.

Then be kind to your body as you work in your garden:

  • Alternate which muscles you use, to avoid muscle fatigue. Try different positions and switch hands and feet that you use
  • Stretch every 10-15 minutes
  • Bend your knees – not your back!
  • Lift with your legs – not your back!
  • Spread feet (shoulder-width) and hands apart for balance, distribution of work load
  • Ask for help whenever you’re in doubt about whether you can safely lift anything
  • Drink water frequently
  • Protect yourself from sun exposure – hats, sun block, lightweight clothes, sunglasses
  • Avoid overheating and the danger of heat stroke
    (see our blog posting: How to handle the heat)
  • Rest – give yourself a break every 10-15 minutes

A combination benchseat-kneeler minimizes bending and impact on joints and helps you stand up:


Even seemingly simple tasks can be risky, says Cole. If you had to make a list of the most dangerous gardening tools, would you include …

… flower pots?

A British study ranked flower pots as the second most dangerous gardening tool (after lawn mowers), because of back strains and sprains. As with watering cans, mulch and soil, they pack a lot more weight than your back expects.

Cole demonstrates a lifting technique that exercises your muscles without pain:

  • OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASpread your feet apart to shoulder-width (balance and work load distribution)
  • Bend your knees, not your back
  • Look straight ahead (not down) to keep your back straight
  • Lift more with your legs and hips than with your arms and back

Follow these safety guidelines and gardening can yield great results for your landscape, your dining table and your body, Cole says.

(See: Want good exercise? Go dig in your garden!)

You can increase your metabolism, reduce blood pressure, burn fat (about 200 calories every 30 minutes), improve coordination, build muscle strength and increase bone density.

You can also improve mental alertness, relieve stress, learn something new, feel at one with creation, appreciate beauty and enjoy the satisfaction of seeing your garden grow.

“There’s nothing like seeing a plant blossom to help us feel better,” says Cole. “We feel healthier and we feel better.”

But remember, healthy gardening requires safe gardening.

To learn how you can put Craig Cole on your fitness team, contact the Bethany Village marketing department at 937-436-6850 or

In future articles, we’ll explore:

  • Eating your garden: fresh, healthy, delicious summer treats
  • Practical exercises for gardening

Written by Bethany Village

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