Six tips for smarter gardening

I was getting my hair cut the other day - not a $400 haircut, just the regular kind - when a middle-aged woman with her head wrapped in a towel approached the chair next to mine. She could barely move. She was bent over, one leg dragged a little, and she had both hands cradling her hips, barely able to sit down.

“What happened to YOU?” asked my haircutter. I was all ears, myself.

“Gardening,” the woman said. “I think I overdid it.”

Welcome to my 6 Tips for Smarter Gardening column. It’s an annual, and when I heard about that woman’s suffering - she hurt her back and shoulders and was still complaining when I left - I took it as a sign. Time for me to plant the following:

  • Gardening is real exercise. It’s bending, lifting, pulling, kneeling, sometimes all at the same time, and if you’re not focused on mindful movement and steady breathing, you can really do yourself in.
  • Ease into it. If your gardening tasks are strenuous - removing brush, digging up bushes, pushing a wheelbarrow - be sure to take a little extra time to warm up the muscles and joints you’ll be using. If your idea of gardening is cutting fresh mint for your mojito, you can probably skip the warmup.
  • Learn to lift and carry. Bend at your knees, not your waist, and use the power of your legs to lift the load. Hold the load close - outstretched arms can cause back strain - and as you move, engage as many of your core muscles as you’ve been able to find. Don’t torque or twist carrying a heavy load. And one good way to stay focused is to listen to the sound of your breath. Exhale when you exert yourself; inhale to lift your heart to the sky.
  • Be aware. Gardening injuries often happen when you’re moving from one task to another. Or if you stay at one task too long. My new best friend at the beauty shop - I like to call it my pro-aging salon - spent five hours planting in her garden after not being there for more than six months. She overdid it. I didn’t tell her that, to her sad face, but I am telling you: Don’t overdo it. That’s what being aware is all about.
  • Take precautions. To protect your knees, kneel on something soft. Drink your fluid of choice to keep from getting dehydrated.

Use gardening tools that are ergonomically correct. Don’t let your skin burn. If you feel pain or strain when you garden, stop your activity for a while and give your body a chance to recover.
Consider asking others to help you in your garden - your kids, for instance! Studies have shown that one wonderful way to get kids eating fruits and vegetables is to get them gardening. Read it and reap.

  • Garden with grace and gratitude. Gardening is as good for your mind as it is for your body. It’s a quiet time to sink your fingers into Mother Earth and deepen your connection not only to her deep abundant nature, but also to your own. And from that place, great growth can happen.

Board with running? Try orienteering.
There’s a sport for everyone. The trick is to find one you enjoy. If you love maps and compasses and slogging through the underbrush, then you should check out orienteering - little known, but lots of fun. I’ve done it. Got filthy. Can’t wait to do it again.

Orienteering gets you outdoors. That’s already a great thing. Your map is marked with a series of points - “controls” - and the object is to go from point to point, punching a card to prove you’ve been there, and return to the starting point in the quickest amount of time. (That’s if you care about your score. I didn’t. I was more concerned about grass stains.)

You choose the route. Through the mud, into the bushes, over the hills. It’s one of those exhausting, exhilarating running sports, and a wonderful way to do something physical with family and friends.

For more info, Google, or begin your search for local clubs at

Marilynn Preston is a fitness expert, personal trainer and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues. She welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to