Gardening is a popular activity in Canada — it offers both physical and mental health benefits. However, if you are one of the 4.6 million Canadians affected by osteoarthritis, you may wonder if it will worsen your joint pain and stiffness. Good news! Gardening can actually help you manage your osteoarthritis by increasing your strength, flexibility and activity tolerance. To maximize the benefits of gardening and stay safe, there are some simple strategies you can employ.
Choose to garden when you are typically most comfortable and energetic. Ideally, avoid gardening when it is particularly cold and between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun and heat are at their peak. If you are outside in the heat, be sure to take the proper summer precautions (drink plenty of fluids, wear a hat and use sunscreen).
Use a light warm-up to ease into the work of gardening. You can start by doing some light yard cleanup (such as picking up branches or light raking) for five to 10 minutes. Once your muscles are a little warmer from this activity, you should do some range of motion exercises for your neck, shoulders, back, hands and any other area that feels stiff. These exercises should be gentle and pain-free. They might include turning your head from side to side, arm circles or raising your arms overhead, reaching toward the sky and then toward your toes and alternating between making gentle fists and extending your fingers. Continue to think about your posture and body position as you garden to ensure you are in an optimal position.
Planning the work
Try to alternate the easy and hard jobs — ease your way into the hardest work. Any particular task shouldn’t be done for more than approximately 20 minutes at a time, to limit sustained stress to your joints. At the beginning of the season, consider options in your garden layout and plant choices that might limit the strain on you throughout the season — such as elevated beds, choosing perennials over annuals and using mulch to limit weeding and watering needs, can all be helpful.
Using the right tools
Many gardening tools exist to improve your efficiency and decrease the stress on your body. Gardening gloves are helpful in keeping your hands warm, providing a cushion from the hard handled tools and increasing your grip. Tools with extendable handles can reduce your need for reaching, leaning and bending over, which will limit the stress on your shoulders and back. Consider altering the handles on tools to make them easier to hold (use foam tubing to make the handles larger, the handle should be approximately the size of the circle that your index finger and thumb make when pinched together). Ensure you have a stool or kneeling cushion for working close to the ground.
Try to finish your gardening session with some easier tasks and consider repeating your range of motion or stretching exercises that you did at the beginning. You might even benefit from doing a short, easy-paced walk afterwards to help your muscles recover from the heavier work.
Listening to your body
If you have discomfort the evening or day after gardening, you have likely done a bit too much. Reflect on which gardening activities you did and how long you did them for — try gardening again but reduce the time you spend out there or the difficulty of the tasks you are doing.
If you aren’t sure if gardening is safe for you, talk to your doctor or physiotherapist. They can often teach you appropriate stretches, suggest tools, braces and other techniques to help you stay in your garden safely throughout the season.