Hints for healthy gardening practices to keep seniors active

Posted April 03, 2013, at 9:20 a.m.

Senior Beat

by Carol Higgins Taylor

Eastern Area Agency on Aging

It is spring. I have proof of this because my beautiful and determined little flowers are starting to poke their colorful heads through the lingering snow banks.

It won’t be long before nurseries and gardening centers are buzzing like bees with people eager to get their hands dirty. Gardening has a variety of advantages for everyone but seniors can particularly benefit from the activity.

Beyond being relaxing, gardening can help you maintain good health as well as beautifying your home. And if you plant vegetables, you can enjoy extra health benefits of fresh produce. A word of caution: if you have been fairly sedentary all winter, ask your healthcare provider for a “green” thumbs up before heading outside to dust off your trowels and spades, etc.

For seniors who have problems with arthritic joints, there are many tools on the market that are ergonomic and have been adapted to make the tasks easier on the body. While gardening is a great activity it is not without risk. For example, the simple act of bending, stooping and digging and repetitive-motion activities can aggravate sore muscles and make gardening painful which could lead to quitting.

So think before you plant. If the big gardens feel like a bit much to handle these days, consider container gardening. I was actually very surprised at the large variety of vegetables that can be grown in pots. The list includes green beans, carrots, Swiss chard, lettuce, cucumbers, bell peppers, mustard greens and, of course, tomatoes, which has one variety that is specifically bred for container gardening.

Container gardening may be just the thing for seniors who have downsized to an apartment or who want to try their hands at growing some of their own produce. It is satisfying and economical.

For apartment dwellers, there are a few things to consider before turning a patio or deck into a crop-producing garden, for instance the amount of sunlight the plants need versus how much they will actually get. Before planting, make a chart of sunlight to accurately determine how much sun exposure the area gets in a day.

Also, be sure your vegetable grows upward, instead of sprawling out,  even if you have to put a cage around it. Wind is another factor to keep in mind. It the plants are too tall, they could blow over on a windy day. This happened to my cherry tomatoes so I had to tie them to the deck railing.

Here are some tips to garden safely:

• Warm up by doing a few stretches before starting any gardening activities and working with your garden tools. This will help reduce any muscle soreness you may experience later on. A hand massage after planting can be soothing.

• Change positions every 10 minutes to avoid overusing a particular muscle group and use alternate motions. Pull with your right hand, then with your left. By using your non-dominate hand you are also working to keep your brain healthy.

• It may cost a little more but buy your materials in smaller packages to avoid potential injury of lifting heavy bags, which puts undue stress on your body. Don’t be a hero. I dumped a wheelbarrow full of soil because I misjudged what I could effectively maneuver.

• Don’t let yourself get too tired. While it is tempting to “get it all done” working for shorter lengths of time may keep you from being too sore later.

• Take water or juice breaks, too. Staying hydrated will help reduce bodily stress. Remember it has been a while since you’ve done this type of work so take it easy the first few times.

When all is said and done, gardening is certainly worth the effort. Gazing on a beautiful flower garden while eating a fresh salad is its own reward.

Carol Higgins Taylor is director of communications at Eastern Area Agency on Aging. For information, call 941-2865, 800-432-7812 or go to EAAA.org.

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