7 Tips for Gardening with Arthritis
With spring comes the desire to get back in the garden. But sore joints can often make green fingers struggle to get the gardening done. But gardening can be a great form of exercise. We spoke to Monica Franke, an osteopath and movement expert, to get some tips on gardening with arthritis
Why is gardening a good form of exercise?
“With all the bending, pulling, lifting and raking or digging, gardening really can be a full body workout. Try to use a variety of movements when you garden to condition your body to be able to manage all the different aspects you require of it.” Monica says.
Repetitive, strenuous movement can exacerbate arthritis symptoms, so if your pain is getting worse, it’s time to take a break. It’s also a good idea to switch up what you’re doing. Not only will that avoid straining one area of your body too much, but it’ll also keep things exciting!
“If you look beyond the body conditioning aspect of gardening, the presence required to nurture your garden, the slower breathing and the sense of reward all deliver a regulated nervous system and feel-good hormones. This in itself, is an important aspect of good exercise,” Monica continues.
Gardening is a great way to practice mindfulness and being present in the moment, which can reduce anxiety, increase happiness and improve your mental health. Being in nature can make a positive impact on your mood, working with your hands and having attainable goals can help with stress management and improve your self esteem. If you have an outdoor garden you’ll be soaking up that all important vitamin D!
How gardening can help ease joint pain
“When you have an arthritic condition, it is so important to keep moving, even when you ache and feel tired. The movement should be mid-range (so not taking your joints as far as they can go - don’t push yourself too hard). This will lubricate the joint keeping synovial fluids moving,” Monica says.
Whilst exercise isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you’re in pain, keeping active is vital for you to maintain your muscle and joint strength. The less activity you do, the weaker the muscles will become, and the less they will be able to support your joints. This will lead to increased pain, which will make exercise less appealing and the cycle spirals.
So how can you break the cycle and make sure you’re gardening safely if you have arthritis?
1. The Up and Down Method
“If you habitually rake and dig with the left foot forward, swap them, so the left is back and your brain and body can figure out a new way. This helps to maintain one direction of rotation in the pelvis and stimulates the feet and legs to navigate in a different way. The up and down qualities of movement keep the muscles strong, which helps to support joints that can become unstable as arthritis develops. And small jobs allow for maintained dexterity,” Monica says.
It’s a good idea to do some simple stretches before and after any type of exercise, which includes gardening. Again, remember that it’s okay to take breaks, switch up your tasks if you start to feel excessive strain, and focus on what you can do rather than pushing yourself too hard.
2. Protect your knees
“Knee pads can be great to support painful knees. And when kneeling to weed or do small, low jobs, it can also be helpful to put a small cushion between the back of your thighs and calves, so there is less bend in knees and hips, and it softens the weight on the ankles,” Monica says.
If you find it hard to bend too much, consider investing in some raised flowerbeds and/or try to keep your plants level by placing them on tables or stands. Whilst you may imagine gardening involves a lot of groundwork, there are lots of different ways to grow plants effectively that don’t involve you bending down all the time and putting strain on your knees, hips and other joints.
3. Spread it out
“Spread your jobs out; doing 20-30 mins of weeding, then move around for a while doing a standing job.” Monica says, “As long as it’s not painful, this can be as good for the brain as suduko! Set a timer that stops you from getting lost in one job for too long before you change position and task. Don’t forget to stay hydrated!”
It can be tempting to keep going ‘just a little longer’, but it is so important to listen to your body and take breaks - even if you don’t feel like you need to. It’s also okay to take a day or two off if you’re feeling tired or in pain - letting yourself rest just helps you get back to top form sooner, rather than wasting more time with injuries.
4. Be careful when lifting heavy things
“Your hamstrings are your best friend. Position your pelvis onto your hip joints so they are properly supported. This will increase your ease and freedom of movement.” Monica says.
It can be a good idea to place your pots on a wheeled shelving unit, so that you can easily push them where you need it to go.
5. Tools are your friends
“One of the most useful things to keep around the kitchen and the garden shed is a non-slip mat. This comes (very cheaply) in rolls that you can cut pieces off and use for easy grip. It can really take some of the fatigue out of arthritic hands and if you wrap a few sheets around, it doesn’t slip on itself and it makes the grip thicker,” Monica says.
There should be a selection of products for people with arthritis on many gardening websites. Gardening tools with bigger and/or easy-grip handles can make the job easier, and electric shears can be used instead of manual ones if you find it easier to use.
6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Gardening doesn’t have to be a solo activity, and there’s no shame in asking for help lifting, carrying or doing jobs that don’t feel accessible on a particular day.
There are also community gardens, allotments and projects where people with an interest in gardening can work together, help each other out, share tips and make new friends. This can be a great choice if you don’t have a garden of your own, or if you’d just like to meet some new people.
7. Listen to your body
Not every day is the same - if it was, it would be really boring! Some days you might feel able to do weeding, and other days it might cause you too much pain. Some days you might feel energised and raring to go, and other days your body might want to take it easy. It’s important to listen to and respect your body. There’s no point pushing yourself too hard, injuring yourself and then being out of action for weeks!
It’s a good idea to work with your physiotherapist, osteopath or other healthcare professional to work out a (flexible) routine that can work for you, as well as stretches and exercises that are specific to your needs.
Do you love to garden? What are your tips on gardening with arthritis? Let us know on Facebook!