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Growing Pains

Exercise plants the seeds for garden-ready fitness


Published June 4, 2008 at 1:10 p.m.


For Mary Mary, getting her garden to grow can be quite contrary — to the body.

As many as 400,000 people nationwide land in the hospital each year with gardening-related injuries, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Thousands more suffer aches and pains because they didn’t adequately prepare for the physical demands of planting, pruning and weeding.

“Gardening may not seem like very strenuous activity,” says Moe Brown of Your Personal Best Fitness Consulting in South Burlington. “Therefore people don’t often associate it with requiring physical conditioning.”

Brown and other Burlington-area physical therapists and trainers say muscle pain, mostly in the hamstrings and lower back, is a common complaint among their gardening clients. “This isn’t just mild soreness that’s slightly bothersome,” Brown says, “but rather soreness to the extent that it limits movement and overall activity for several days.”

Gardeners should take the same precautions they would before starting any workout regimen, suggests Rosalie Welch, a trainer at Sports & Fitness Edge. If you’re doing heavy lifting, shoveling or using a loaded wheelbarrow, start small and be realistic about how much you can really lift. It may mean smaller loads, Welch says, but you’ll feel better in the morning.

To reduce repetitive stress, alternate arms when raking, digging and weeding, so the body is worked more symmetrically. “I see people raking for hours, always pulling the rake just to the left or just to the right,” says Stuart Offer, wellness educator for the Greater Burlington YMCA. “Do this enough times, and one side of your body will look like Arnold Schwarzenegger and the other like Pee-wee Herman.”

With the frost well behind us (right?), garden-savvy fitness gurus share their tips on getting buff for the backyard.


“Just like any athlete getting ready to run a race or play a game of tennis, before you dig in, you need to warm up,” Offer says.

Take a brisk walk or do jumping jacks for 5 to 10 minutes, he suggests; the warm-up will not only pump blood and nutrients into the muscles but also lubricate the joints.


Increasing the strength of “core muscles” in the leg, hip, abdomen and back, in particular, will help foil soil-toiling soreness and make gardening more enjoyable, says Kathy Brunette, the owner of Core Studio Pilates and Personal Training in Burlington.

“Learning to access your core muscles first during lifting and bending can create easier, more fluid movements for your limbs and a healthier support system for your spine,” Brunette says.

Her go-to garden move is the “100”: Lie on your back and center yourself. Bend your knees into your chest, bring your forehead to your knees, then extend your legs directly above your hips, your heels level with your knees. Reach your arms long by your sides and vigorously pump them in small up-and-down motions above the level of your hips while you inhale for five counts through your nose. Then exhale through pursed lips for five counts. Repeat for 10 cycles, which equals 100 arm pumps.

Betsy Bluto, a trainer with Espire Personal Training Studio in South Burlington and an avid gardener, recommends such Pilates moves as the single-leg stretch, the crisscross and the spine stretch forward and back extensions.

The following exercises from the YMCA’s Offer and Your Personal Best’s Brown will also help strengthen your core muscles:


1. Stand about 2 feet in front of a wall, facing out.

2. Slide down until your knees are at about a 90-degree angle and hold, keeping the abs contracted, for 10 to 60 seconds.

3. Return to the starting position and repeat, holding the squat at different angles to work the lower body in different ways. To add intensity, gradually increase the amount of time in the wall-sit position.

Back crunch

1. Lie on the floor on your stomach and place your hands behind your head.

2. While contracting your lower back and buttocks, lift your upper body so that your chest is 3 to 4 inches off the floor. Hold for 1 second.

3. Return to the starting position and repeat 10 times. Having difficulty? Try hooking your legs around something for support or position your arms at your sides.


Hamstring stretch

1. Sit on the floor with your left leg extended straight out.

2. Bend your right knee and place your right foot flat against the left inner thigh, as close as you can to your crotch.

3. Place your hands on the floor on either side of your left leg.

4. With your back straight, reach out with your arms toward your left foot as far as possible without rounding your back. Keep your left knee as flat on the floor as you can.

5. Repeat with your right leg extended.

Hip external rotator stretch

1. Lie on your back on a comfortable surface.

2. Bend your left leg so the knee is raised off the floor.

3. Cross your right ankle over and rest it just above your left knee.

4. Snake your right hand under your right leg and grasp the left leg just under the left knee with both hands.

5. Pull your left knee toward your chest as far as you possibly can. You should feel a stretching sensation and light pinch primarily in the right hip.

6. Reverse the position to stretch the other hip.

Calf stretch

1. Stand facing a wall about 2 feet away.

2. Brace your hands against the wall or a pole.

3. Extend your right foot 1 to 2 feet behind your left foot.

4. Keeping your right heel and foot flat on the floor, lean your chest toward the wall. Keep your right knee locked and straight. The left knee can bend, allowing you to move your chest closer to the wall. You should feel a nice stretch in the right calf.

5. Maintaining the same position, bend the right knee slightly and continue to stretch. You should now feel the stretch in a different part of your calf.

6. Repeat exercise with the other leg.

Standing quadriceps stretch

1. Stand on your left leg with the leg slightly bent. Bend your right leg up behind you and hold your shin just above the ankle.

2. Pull up toward your buttocks, keeping your back as straight as possible, with your hips pointing forward and your knees together. Hold for about 20 to 30 seconds.

3. Repeat exercise with the left leg.

Back extension stretch

1. Lie on your stomach and prop yourself up on your elbows, extending your back.

2. Straighten your elbows, further extending your back, until you feel a gentle stretch. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds.

3. Return to the starting position and repeat.

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