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Plant a Garden, Harvest Better Health: Health Benefits of Gardening for Seniors

Tips for gardening your way to wellness.

By Dina Cheney

Dirt between your fingers, the sun’s warmth on your back, and a fresh breeze in your hair. Is there anything better than spending time tending to your garden? 

Yes! It’s knowing the health benefits of gardening. 

“It’s a physical activity that includes aerobic, muscle- strengthening, and balance training,” explains Maura Daly Iversen, a physical therapist and spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. 

“Gardening counts toward weekly physical activity recommendations. Plus, it can help reduce stress and improve your mood,” Iversen explains. So let’s make the most of this healthy pursuit!

Woman in a yellow sweater watering her flower beds on her balcony with a cityscape in the background

Get the Lay of the Land: Gardening Tips and Tricks

Tips to prevent falls. 

If you have a yard, be sure your garden area is flat and easy to walk on, says Iversen. 

Watch for or remove items you could trip on, like fallen branches, pavers that aren’t flush, or uneven ground. 

Leave the sandals inside and put on stable, supportive shoes or boots. 

Raise your beds. 

Consider adding raised beds or placing containers on tabletops to limit your need to bend over or kneel. 

No yard? No problem. 

Try a container garden. Pots of vegetables or herbs are a great addition to a patio or deck. Peas and tomatoes work well in containers outfitted with a trellis or other support. Bell or hot peppers also grow well in pots. Basil, chives, mint, rosemary, thyme, and oregano can thrive in planters—and are a healthy way to add flavor to your dishes. 

Or look for community gardens in your area. These shared outdoor spaces can be found in urban, suburban, or rural areas. They consist of one large area of land and many individual plots. 

Most importantly, community gardens are a wonderful source for fresh produce, outdoor exercise, and new friends! 

Two men crouched down looking at their garden.

Gear Up: What to Wear When Gardening 

Wear nonslip gloves. 

“Be careful about skin infections, especially if you have diabetes or lymphatic system issues,” advises Sophia Chang, MD, MPH, internist, and Chief Clinical Informatics Officer at Clover Health. 

“Keep an eye out for nicks and cuts and try to avoid getting stuck with thorns. If you develop a wound, keep it clean,” she notes. 

Adapt to enjoy. 

Don’t let arthritis in your hands or bad knees keep you from enjoying your garden. 

Ergonomic, lightweight, and grip-friendly tools allow you to garden with less pain. Check out options from Radius Garden, Garden Weasel, Gonicc, or Peta Easi-Grip. 

Protect your knees and hips. 

When kneeling, wear knee pads or use a kneeling pad, Iversen suggests. To reduce pressure on your knees and back, kneel on one knee while keeping your other foot on the ground. 

“Picture the position of someone proposing or a knight taking one knee,” says A. Lynn Millar, Ph.D., a physical therapist and member of the American College of Sports Medicine. When kneeling, lean forward from the hips, she adds. 

Protect your skin. 

Sure, the sun provides a dose of vitamin D, but too much exposure can lead to sunburns and skin cancer. To protect yourself, wear sunscreen with SPF 30 or stronger plus a hat. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water. 

Woman in a pink shirt and straw hat holding a bundle of flowers in a garden.

Dig In: How To Prevent Injury While Gardening

1. Start slowly. 

Especially if you haven’t been physically active over the winter, pace yourself. Gradually increase the length of your gardening sessions. 

2. Warm up. 

Before gardening, take a 10 to 15-minute walk, suggests Iversen. 

3. Vary each session. 

Reduce the risk of strains and sprains. Make a schedule that requires different movements or body parts every day. For example, weed one day, plant another. Rake one day, water the next. 

4. Take breaks. 

Avoid overtaxing your muscles and joints, especially if you have arthritis. Dr. Millar suggests standing and stretching every half hour, setting a timer to remind you. (You can keep track of where you were working by placing a rock or lawn ornament to mark your spot.) 

5. Breathe deeply. 

To help you relax, bring oxygen to your muscles, and increase your range of motion, take deep breaths as you work. 

6. Avoid repetitive injuries. 

Try using your right and left hands equally. Switch hands every few minutes. Change positions often. 

7. Watch your back. 

When you need to move material like mulch or soil, divide it into smaller loads. Ask a neighbor or friend to lend a hand—maybe in exchange for flowers or vegetables!

Bend with your knees—not your back—and avoid twisting your back. “Pull the item in as close to your torso as possible,” adds Dr. Millar. Use a two-wheeled garden cart or wheelbarrow if possible. 

8. Prevent strains. 

When you’re done for the day, take a hot shower. Or enjoy a bath with Epsom salts. 

9. Ice for pain. 

Apply an ice pack for up to 15 minutes to any sore or strained areas. Protect your skin from the ice using a towel. 

Post-Gardening Stretches Session 

Neck Stretches

  • Sit in a chair with both feet flat on the ground and your hands resting in your lap. Let your shoulders fall comfortably down. 
  • Slowly bring your chin toward your chest. Hold for 10 seconds. 
  • Then slowly move your chin up, moving your gaze to the ceiling. Hold for 10 seconds. 
  • Bring your head to center. Keep your shoulders back and down. 
  • Tilt your head, bringing your left ear toward your left shoulder. Hold for 10 seconds. 
  • Move your head slowly to the other side, bringing your right ear to your right shoulder. Hold for 10 seconds. 
  • Repeat two times. 

Back Stretches

  • Sit in a chair with both feet flat on the ground and knees bent at 90 degrees. 
  • Sit with your back straight and not resting against the back of your chair. 
  • Place your hands on your legs, by your knees with your palms facedown. 
  • Rotate your hands in so your fingertips face each other and elbows bend outward slightly. 
  • Inhale, pressing into your hands and rounding your back. Then roll your shoulders back and down. Lift your chest and chin up. Feel a gentle arch in your back. 
  • Exhale, rounding your back, pulling your belly in toward your back, tucking your chin to your chest. 
  • Repeat set slowly five times

Hands and Wrist Stretches

  • Alternate from making a tight fist to a wide-open hand. Hold your hand open for 15 seconds. Repeat.
  • Gently close your hands and circle your wrists for 10 rotations. Circle in the opposite direction. Repeat both ways once more.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2022 issue of Clover Living magazine. Want to see more articles like this? Subscribe to Clover Living magazine for free (if you aren’t already subscribed) here.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Kumar Dharmarajan

Published on 9/20/22

Photo credit: Getty