Getting the Most From Your Gardening

From Rouge Valley Health System - Cardiac Rehabilitation Services - Toronto Ontario
August 2003
By Andrea Kenyon-Lee, Exercise Therapist

With the warmer weather finally here, many of us have begun to head outdoors and start working on our lawns and gardens. Gardening is the second most popular form of activity, attracting 72% of Canadian adults. (It is second only to our favourite activity… walking)

Gardening offers many health benefits, can be good for the environment and enhances the appearance of your home and yard. Maintaining your prescribed exercise program will assist you in returning to some or all of your gardening tasks. It is important however, to determine what gardening activities are safe for you to do and to plan your activity.

Gardening involves a combination of endurance, flexibility and strength activities. For example, activities such as mowing the lawn, raking and gathering leaves, hoeing the garden and spreading mulch keep you moving continuously and require cardiovascular and muscular endurance. Activities such as bending and stretching to plant, weeding, pruning and watering plants requires adequate flexibility and joint range of motion. Activities such as digging in the garden, turning compost, carrying bags or branches and other clean up activities require muscular strength. Your rehabilitation program incorporates all of these specific components of physical fitness. In order for you to garden effectively and with ease, it must be done in conjunction with your exercise program.

There are many considerations in determining which gardening activities may be suitable for you. Depending on the type of gardening activity you are performing, the workload on your heart and muscles can range from light to very heavy. Tasks such as watering the lawn, using a riding mower, light pick-up in the yard and walking to apply fertilizer or lawn seed are fairly light in intensity. Trimming shrubs with a power cutter, light raking, bagging grass and leaves, and planting seedlings and shrubs are more moderately intense activities. Heavier intensity activities include pushing a lawn mower, digging, spading, carrying bags and trimming shrubs and may not be appropriate for everyone. Remember, the intensity of these activities will not be exactly the same for each individual as it also depends on a number of other factors including your fitness level, current activity level, and medical history.

For individuals with heart disease, it is especially important to take extra precautions to ensure that you are working within your physical capabilities. Here are some general guidelines for keeping your time in the garden safe and enjoyable:

- Treat gardening as you would exercise and ensure a proper warm up. Spend at least 5-10 minutes doing some easy walking or very light activities such as standing and walking to water the lawn. Incorporate some arm, back and leg stretches to warm up your muscles.
- Throughout your gardening session, monitor your Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) and pulse rate just as you would with your exercise program. RPE should not exceed a moderate to somewhat hard level (i.e. 3 - 4 out of 10 or 11-13 out of 20) and your pulse rate should not go beyond what has been prescribed to you by your Exercise Therapist. (See RPE scales listed at the end of this article)
- Monitor yourself for symptoms such as angina, shortness of breath, dizziness, fatigue or any other muscle aches and pains. Discontinue the activity if you are experiencing angina, and take your nitro as prescribed.
- Check the heat safety index (see article on exercising in the heat) prior to gardening sessions. Remember, no outdoor activities if the temperature and humidity are in the Danger or Emergency zone or if there is an Air Quality Advisory in effect.
- Wear light coloured, loose fitting clothing, sunscreen, hat and supportive shoes.
- It's easy to get caught up in gardening activities and forget that the body needs replenishing with fluids, especially when you're outside in the sun. Drink a glass of water before, during (every 20 minutes) and after your time in the garden.
- When doing activities that require bending, stooping or kneeling vary your position for comfort. Use a soft pad under your knees or a small stool to sit on. Gardening in raised beds, planters or barrels is ideal if you want to sit while you work. There are also special (longer) tools available if your range of motion is limited.
- Pace yourself and plan regular rest breaks, especially if you're a weekend gardener. Extend the length of your sessions gradually and don't work too hard or too long during any one session. Stop before you're tired and sore.
- Avoid heavy lifting and carrying. Use a cart or trolley to transport heavy items or ask for assistance from a friend, family member or neighbour. If you are lifting lighter items remember to stand close to the object with your feet comfortably apart. Lift with your legs and keep the object close to your body. Lift slowly and smoothly, and make sure you do not hold your breath.
- Remember that some gardening tasks may not be appropriate for everyone as they are quite vigorous and require a high level of physical fitness. (See paragraph listing the heavier intensity gardening activities)
- Call your Exercise Therapist for specific advice and guidelines before you start gardening or if you have any questions about performing certain tasks.

Gardening can be a great physical activity that can compliment your current exercise program. It is not only good for the heart and muscles, but it's good for the soul. What a great way to get outdoors and get in touch with the wonders of nature. Have a great season and happy gardening!

Rating of Perceived Exertion Scale (0-10)

0 No effort at all
0.5 Very, very easy effort
1.0 Very easy effort
2.0 Easy effort
3.0 Moderate effort
4.0 Somewhat hard effort
5.0 Hard effort
7.0 Very hard effort
10.0 Very, very hard effort - Maximal

Rating Of Perceived Exertion Scale (6-20)

7 Very, very light
9 Very light
11 Fairly light
13 Somewhat hard
15 Hard
17 Very Hard
19 Very very hard
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