Stay healthy by treating gardening like it's a sport

Lynne Brick loves to garden — and she knows how to stay healthy and safe while she's digging in the dirt.

Brick, a veteran gardener and the president and founder of the local gym chains Brick Bodies and Lynne Brick's Women's Health and Fitness, knows that gardening is no lazy hobby. It can be a great workout and enjoyable pastime, but it can also be a source of pain and difficulties.

"Gardening is a great way to be active," says Brick. "It's a combination of strength, flexibility and endurance training. It's not something any participant should take lightly — it requires muscular and cardiovascular endurance."

Brick isn't alone in her love of gardening. According to the National Gardening Association, about 100 million American households have some type of home garden and in 2009, 43 million households had food gardens.

Home food gardeners tend to be somewhat older than the average American; 68 percent are 45 or older. "It's especially important to stretch before gardening if you're middle-aged or older," warns Brick, noting that the bending and lifting associated with gardening can be tough on joints and previously injured muscles.

"People don't usually come to us just because of gardening," explains Wendy Quitasol of Baltimore's Mind Body Physical Therapy. "There's usually something underlying, but when they garden, it becomes an injury."

Kathie Fedele, also a physical therapist at Mind Body Physical Therapy, notes that staying in one position for too long may cause joint pain."If you're bent over gardening, every 20 minutes, move your body into the opposite position," she advises.

"Take breaks between activities," suggests Brick, who gardens carefully to avoid exacerbating an old back injury from her high-school field hockey days. "Roll your shoulders back, reset great posture, shake out your arms and legs and take deep breaths. Then you can get back to work. Even if you're in great shape, you're not necessarily in gardening shape. It requires twisting, turning and lifting — gardening uses different muscles than a barre class."

Physical problems may also arise when gardeners use inappropriate tools, warns Ray Moore of Physical Therapy First. "Select tools that are appropriately sized for you," he says. "If you're short, don't use a super-long shovel. Make the job as easy as possible for you."

But muscle and joint pain are not the only perils of working in the garden. Gardening outdoors, in the hot sun, can also lead to problems.

Sun and bugs

Master gardener Carole Langrall splits her time between Santa Fe, N.M., and Catonsville, where she owns A Garden of Earthly Delights floral studio. In both locations, she tries to avoid spending the hottest hours of the day outdoors. "I try to cut flowers early in the morning or late in the afternoon," she says. "The heat of the day is a problem."

"There's a risk of bad sunburns," warns Dr. Neal Frankel, head of the emergency department at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Hospital. Frankel recommends using sunscreen, wearing lightweight clothes and hats, and drinking plenty of fluids.

"Hydrating drinks serve a purpose," he expands. "You don't have to get fancy or expensive, but with drinks, you want to replace the salt and potassium that come out with the water."

Frankel says that numerous common drugs, including some beta blockers and antibiotics, make people more photosensitive or inhibit the body's ability to sweat. Also, he warns that citrus juice can react with the sun, causing bad burns. So if you squeeze lemons or limes into your water, be sure to wash or cover your hands before exposing them to the sun.

Bugs may be a source of injury as well, advises Frankel. "One of the things we see are yellow jacket stings," he says. "They live in the ground, so when you pull up weeds, you get massive yellow jackets out of the ground. They're relentless and very vicious."

If you know you are allergic to bee stings, keep an epi pen close by, he says, adding, "if you feel like you have to use an epi pen, call 911."

"You can't have a garden without being careful about tick exposures," he adds. After gardening, check your body, including your head, for ticks. If you find one right away and are able to remove the entire bug by using tweezers to gently pull it away from the skin, you have little cause for concern.

"The earlier you identify the tick, the better and the less risk of transmitting Lyme disease," says Frankel.

Plant safety