“The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just the body, but the soul.” — Alfred Austin
There’s a reason the poets love gardening. They’re inspired by the beauty of nature, and the profound satisfaction that comes from planting a garden and watching it flourish. And, as the great poet Alfred Austin alludes to, gardening can benefit both mind and body.
In part one of our gardening and bone health mini-series, we took a look at these mind and body benefits. In particular, we delved into how these benefits contribute to bone health. We found that yes, there are many advantages to spending a little time in the garden… especially in your golden years!
But what if you’re concerned about low bone density? Or you’re simply not quite as spry as you used to be? It’s true, some motions involved in gardening can become more difficult with time. In fact, bending over, kneeling, and squatting can be challenging at any age!
The good news is there are simple ways to work around these challenges. Which is why this part of our mini-series covers six tips to help you enjoy gardening safely and without fear.
Be Savvy With Your Garden Equipment and Tools
As you get older, things like bending over or kneeling can cause pain. It can also be tricky to get back up again without aggravating your joints.
But there are adjustments you can make in your garden to reduce the need for these movements! There are also special tools designed to make gardening easier and safer.
Make Your Garden Friendly for Low Bone Density
In terms of adjustments to your garden itself, the first thing you’ll want to consider is using raised beds (also known as garden boxes). Raised beds are simply boxes or “beds” of any shape that contain soil. These beds have many advantages including better drainage, keeping out pests, and preventing soil compaction.
But most importantly for our purposes, raised beds can reduce back strain. Because the soil level is raised, you don’t have to bend over as far to tend your plants. And, if the beds are well made, you can even sit on the edge of the box as you garden!
Also, consider the placement and shape of your garden boxes. By creating one row of narrow boxes, you’ll further reduce the need to lean over. You’ll be able to water all the plants in a box from a simple standing position.
Another option is to use retractable hanging baskets. These ingenious baskets use a pulley system to allow you to water and tend to your plants with ease. You’ll probably need to hire someone or ask for help to set up your garden this way. But it’s a one-time job, and once it’s done, it’ll be easier to garden for years to come!
Special Tools for Gardening with Low Bone Density
When it comes to equipment, the right tool can help make gardening safe and enjoyable. There are gardening tools specifically designed for folks with mobility issues and to prevent aches and pains.
Choose tools with long handles to decrease the need for bending over. You can find ergonomic long-handled tools like shovels and rakes at most gardening stores. These tools are light-weight and make use of specific angles to reduce stress and prevent poor posture (more on posture in a moment).
Another factor to consider when choosing garden tools is the surface area of the grip. The larger the surface area you’re gripping, the less pressure you’re putting on your joints. To sum up, choose large-gripped, long-handled ergonomic tools!
These days, you can even find tools with interchangeable ends. This means instead of carrying around multiple tools you can have a trowel, a weed fork, and a rake all-in-one.
Another easy trick is to attach a basket to your walker if you use one! This way you can keep extra tools and supplies in your basket which will leave your hands free and reduce back and forth. If you don’t use a walker, you can use a garden trolley for the same purpose.
Gardening gloves are a good investment too. They’ll keep your hands safe from cuts and scrapes. They’ll also help you maintain a more comfortable, secure grip on tools further reducing stress on your joints.
Finally, knee pads or a garden kneeler are invaluable accessories for any gardener! If you do need to get down on your knees, padding will make the experience a lot more comfortable.
You can even find a padded kneeling stool with side handles. So, instead of bending over or kneeling, you can sit on this stool. And getting back up is much easier with handles to push down on!
As you can see, there are many tools and methods for making gardening a safe activity for older adults. If you’re not sure where to pick up special gardening tools or who to ask for help with your garden, don’t worry! We’ll have some helpful resources for you a little further down the page.
Maintain Proper Posture at All Times
Did your mother ever tell you, “Sit up straight?” I know mine did! This common direction is some of the best advice a mother can give.
Proper posture reduces the amount of strain you put on your body’s ligaments and muscles. Poor posture, on the other hand, can have all sorts of negative consequences. In particular, for older adults, poor posture leads to more falls.
This is because to maintain your balance, your “center of mass” (in other words, the distribution of your weight in space), has to stay within certain limits relative to your feet. For example, if you’re hunched over, your center of mass goes past your feet and your balance will be off.
There are many movements in gardening where posture comes into play. By maintaining proper posture while performing these movements, you’ll avoid undue strain and reduce your risk of falls. So what movements should you be aware of in the garden?
For starters, when you’re using a shovel or other gardening tool, you might bend and twist your back. But this puts a lot of stress on your spine. Instead, stand straight with one foot slightly in front of the other. Then, shift your body weight from foot to foot to complete the motion.
It’s a good idea to avoid any heavy lifting. We’ll go over heavy lifting workarounds in the next section. But for now, it’s worth stressing that if you do have to lift something, make sure you maintain proper posture!
In other words, don’t bend over to pick something up. Instead, squat down and use your leg muscles to push yourself back up while keeping your back straight. Make sure you hold objects nice and close to your body, so you’re not tempted to hunch over while lifting.
This same principle applies to when you’re carrying an object. Holding objects tight to your body will make it easier to balance and minimize strain on your back and arms.
The main takeaway here is to be aware of your posture. Whenever you feel yourself hunching or bending forwards, make a conscious effort to straighten your spine. Think about what you do in the garden that involves bending over. How can you modify these actions to keep your back straight?
Finally, it’s important to go slowly and not overextend yourself. If ever you feel a new pain while out in the garden, stop what you’re doing. In these instances, it’s a good idea to check in with your healthcare professional before getting back out there!
Avoid Doing Any Heavy Lifting
There’s no need to strain yourself lifting heavy things. If there’s a task in the garden that’s physically challenging, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Ask a neighbor, a friend, or a family member to lend you a hand.
But if ever you do need to carry something yourself, try dividing it into several light loads. Better yet, use a garden trolley or a wheelbarrow to transport objects around your garden. Take your time. There’s no need to rush when gardening!
Other workarounds to heavy lifting include using a hose with an appropriate nozzle instead of carrying a watering can around. You can also place watering hoses inside your garden boxes. These types of hoses have lots of little holes in them in order to water surrounding plants.
The point here is not to overdo it, and to ask for help when you need it. It’s simply not worth injuring yourself over a task someone would’ve been happy to help you with!
Wear Proper Footwear to Help Prevent Falls and Protect Your Feet
Perhaps the biggest safety concern for older adults in the garden is the risk of falling. We know that falls can have some very serious consequences. With falls being a leading cause of death in older adults, this tip is especially important to follow.
Invest in proper footwear for gardening. You’ll want to wear shoes that fit well, have a rubber sole for grip, and are made of a sturdy material to protect your feet in case you drop something. For extra protection, choose a shoe that also has strong toe-caps!
In addition to proper footwear, you can show your feet some love with foot strengthening exercises. One study showed that a combination of proper footwear, education on fall prevention, and foot exercises reduced the amount of falls in older adults by 36%.
So even though a fall is a scary prospect, don’t let it stop you from enjoying your garden! With proper footwear, preventative education, and foot exercises, you can reduce your risk of falling and enjoy gardening as a safe and healthy activity.
Deal With Uneven Slabbing and Other Trip Hazards in the Garden
Of course, you want to avoid falling at all costs. Understanding how falls happen and being proactive can help you do just that. Research tells us that the leading causes of falls can be lumped into three categories: physical, medical, and environmental.
We’ve touched on what you can do to reduce your fall risk in the garden physically (wear proper shoes and practice foot strengthening exercises). And now we’ll look at what you can do to minimize environmental risk factors.
Common tripping hazards in the garden include loose stones, planks, or bricks in outdoor areas like your patio or deck. Holes or uneven surfaces along garden paths can also be dangerous, so you should get these filled in and leveled.
So that plank in your deck that’s always been loose, or that paving stone that shifts ever so slightly when you step on it by accident… make sure you get all these little issues fixed. Your garden will be a safer place for it.
If you’d like to learn more about what you can do to avoid falling at home, please visit our ultimate fall prevention checklist!
Wear Proper Sun Protection and Take Regular Water Breaks
That said, there’s such a thing as too much sun! Some experts say you can get a healthy dose of vitamin D from just 10-15 minutes of summer sun two to four times a week. So there’s no need to overdo it.
As an older adult, it’s important to be mindful of how much time you spend in the sun. To prevent heat stress, it’s a good idea to do your gardening before 10am or after 4pm when the sun is a little weaker.
When you’re in the garden, remember to take regular water breaks, so that you don’t get dehydrated. It’s also recommended to wear proper sun protection like a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.
If ever you feel like you’re overheating, don’t hesitate to take a break! Have a sit down in the shade until you feel cooler. And if you still feel too warm, it may be time to call it a day.
To sum up, by taking precautions and listening to your body, you can safely enjoy spending time under the sun!
Gardening and Bone Health Safety Takeaways
Gardening can be as safe as it is enjoyable. It’s a simple matter of taking care, going at your own pace, and making adjustments where needed.
Take my grandpa for example. He was a blacksmith and as physically and mentally strong as it gets! But in his 80s, he lifted a heavy band saw in his garage, and due to a spinal problem, he lost the use of his legs. After that, he was relegated to a wheelchair or electric scooter. But that didn’t stop him from gardening!
Grandpa made a handle extension for his hoe so that he could still work his garden from his electric scooter. I’m not sure how he reached the ground for planting seeds… he probably got some help with that. But he did all his own weeding with his special hoe!
I’ll always remember when one day, he reached a little too far and tipped over onto the ground. Thankfully, he still had the strength to pull himself back up onto his scooter and was relatively unscathed. There were plenty of laughs after that one!
So, as the great poet William Kent said, “Garden as though you will live forever.” But do so while keeping these six tips in mind:
- Be savvy with your garden equipment and tools.
- Maintain proper posture at all times.
- Avoid doing any heavy lifting.
- Wear proper footwear to help prevent falls and protect your feet.
- Deal with uneven slabbing and other trip hazards in the garden.
- Wear proper sun protection and take regular water breaks.
Ready to get out in the garden but not sure where to start?
Here are some helpful resources to guide your gardening efforts:
- The Old Farmer’s Almanac is an amazing online resource that offers everything from a garden planner to growing guides and how-to videos.
- Dave’s Garden is another helpful gardening site that boasts the world’s largest plant database as well as guides, video tutorials, and more.
- Epic Gardening covers a wide range of gardening topics including product reviews to help you pick the right tools.
- Gardener’s Supply Company sells many ergonomic tools for older adults and even shared an article on how the right tools make gardening accessible at any age.
- If you need some help, check with your local garden center for a list of professional gardeners in your area! You can also do a quick search online to find gardening help near you.
I hope you found this article helpful, and that you feel well-prepared to tackle some gardening. If you have any questions, let me know in the comments below!