Be careful! Gardening is great exercise and a wonderful way to relax and relieve stress, but it’s also fraught with possibilities for back problems. And, for people with diabetes, gardening may also cause low levels of blood sugar (hypoglycemia) as the muscles will be using much more sugar while gardening than they would when the body is at rest.
For example, when raking leaves, a 100-pound person will burn 22 grams of carbohydrate per hour, a 150-pound person will burn 30 grams of carbohydrate per hour, and a 200-pound person will burn 38 grams of carbohydrate per hour. Compare this to walking 3 miles in an hour: 15 grams (100-pound person), 21 grams (150-pound person), and 27 grams (200-pound person).
Maintain Blood Sugar Levels
To maintain blood sugar levels within a satisfactory range, you will need to test your blood before and after the gardening period. If you’re going to be working for an extended period, you may also need to test at some halfway point. To determine if you need extra food or to decrease your insulin before you start to garden, you’ll need to take into consideration the timing of your medication, when you ate your last meal, how long you will be gardening, and the results of your blood testing.
If your blood glucose is below or within the normal range (80 to 120 mg/dl), you may need a slow-acting complex-carbohydrate snack before, during, or after the gardening period. Gardening is considered a moderate exercise. Discuss your specific needs with your dietitian or diabetes educator before you pick up a rake or begin any exercise program. Check with your health-care team for lists of both quick- and slower-acting carbohydrates snacks for you to use with various exercises.
Lessen Back Strain
Gardening requires bending, lifting, twisting, and lateral bending-the motions hardest on the lower back. Warm-ups are important before you start, but even more fundamental is to break the gardening into short periods, 10 to 20 minutes at first, gradually working up to longer periods of no more than 30 minutes without a short break. A good warm-up is to stand with your legs firmly planted shoulder width apart.
Extend your arms straight up, reaching for the sky. For another good stretching exercise, sit in a chair and bend forward, reaching your hands towards the floor and stretching the back. Or, do what’s called the “cat walk” by getting down on your hands and knees, and arching your back with your head down. Then flex the back downward, stretching your head and neck up and back.
Most people don’t know how to lift properly. They bend over with straight legs and a straight back, putting greater strain on the lower back even if the knees are slightly bent.
The best way to lift a potted plant or any heavy object is to do a pelvic tilt, pulling the tummy in and tightening the buttocks with a bit of flexion in the knees. Then go into a squat, keeping the back straight. Let the leg and thigh muscles do the work. Have the object very close to your body when lifting or carrying. Concentrate on the position of your body, not the object that your lifting.
Coming out of the lift, be sure to keep your body straight. One may not realize it, but lifting a 50-pound plant puts about 500 pounds of pressure on the lower back. When carrying the plant, avoid twisting your body. Instead, turn your whole body, using your feet and not your back. When moving anything weighing more than 50 pounds, get some help.
Hoeing and Raking
Every season, people get hurt hoeing and raking. Again, use the pelvic tilt and wide stance, about the width of your shoulders. Keep the tummy and buttocks tucked and the knees flexed. Hoeing and raking should be all arm work, much like a fencer’s movement. Your arms may hurt from stress or overuse, but muscle problems will usually feel better in a couple of days. If you injure your back, it will take a lot longer to heal.
Switch hands often with hoeing or raking. It’s important to keep the body balanced. When working with clippers or an edger, get close to the bush or shrub. If necessary, get up on a step stool or ladder. Keep the torso straight, tummy tucked. Use your arms and legs, not your back.
Digging a Hole
First, if you have a sore back or are prone to back problems, don’t dig the hole. Get someone else to do the job for you. If you are doing the job yourself, make sure you’re using the right shovel for the job. If in doubt, consult with your local hardware store or garden center.
Stand with your feet shoulder-distance apart with the body straight, pull in your stomach, and use your foot to drive the shovel into the ground. Bring the shovel straight up, keeping the torso straight and letting the arms and legs do the work. Don’t twist; instead turn the entire body.
Gardening shouldn’t give you anything more than an aching muscle that quickly gets better. If you used both arms, the stiffness should be in both arms. If the pain is localized on one side or in the center, and lasts more than a couple of days, seek medical help.
If the pain is severe, you may have damaged your back, and a hot shower might make it worse. Ice is always good. Listen to your body. Stop before you hurt; when you get tired, quit. If you do hurt your back, get to the doctor.