The Gardener's Body

Imagine a concise discussion combining
 gardening—the nation’s most popular past-time—
with the exploding interest in physical health and fitness.

                  View in a prettier form:

Ask any gardener, “Do you often enjoy working in the garden, but later discover you’ve harvested an aching back along with your tomatoes?”  “Are stiff knees and sore muscles your unwelcome reward for nurturing those beautiful perennials?” The typical answer will be a knowing nod.  Most gardeners take better care of their gardens than they do of their own bodies. They understand how to manipulate the backyard environment to reap the desired results, but few gardeners seem to realize that the laws of nature are universal and also apply to the environment inside the human body.
Encouraging readers to employ the same principles of care with their bodies as they do with their gardens, The Gardener’s Body Blog draws parallels between the two environments. Gardeners know that robust plants require fertilizer. Different combinations of soil nutrients promote different plant characteristics. Similarly, the human body needs nutritious foods; specific vitamins and minerals support specific bodily systems and structures. Just as there are beneficial bugs in the garden, there are beneficial bacteria at work in the human body. Plants need strong supporting structures for their best display and health correlating with the human body’s requirement for efficient postural alignment. Comparing the familiar elements of the gardener’s world with similarities in the human body will make sense of the gardener’s pain and explain how to prevent it.
The Gardener’s Body Blog demonstrates correct body positioning for the strenuous activities of planting, weeding, mulching and pruning. Gardeners spend hours performing these physically demanding tasks, yet still view their hobby as a recreational activity requiring no physical preparation. Consequently, they turn to the healthcare industry to relieve the aches and pains suffered as a result of inefficient posture during gardening and yard chores. If gardeners simply conditioned their muscles for the work they intend to do, much as athletes do for sporting activities, and learned how to situate their bodies properly, they could avoid the pain often associated with their favorite hobby. By illustrating specific ways to prepare for these activities, The Gardener’s Body Blog enables gardeners to spend the time they love outdoors with less risk of injury, muscle soreness, and joint stiffness.
 For over 20 years as a neuromuscular therapist, posture specialist, and corrective exercise coach, Rebecca Saindon has successfully taught clients how to avoid pain resulting from their daily activities. Her passion is transforming the complicated topic of biomechanics into a much lighter and less daunting “Oh, now I get it!” epiphany for her audience.
            While numerous books focus on physical conditioning for athletes in specific sports, few address the activities non-athletes perform on a daily basis.  Strength trainers and traditional exercisers have long recognized the importance of posture, but unless gardeners seek out specific fitness literature, they are not exposed to this relevant information.
This Gardener’s Body Blog will help its readers understand ‘Posture Fitness’ and the relationship of posture and pain resulting from their specific activity.

The Laws of Nature

Apprentice yourself to nature. Not a day will pass without her opening a new and wondrous world of experience to learn from and enjoy.” - Richard W. Langer

In the 20 years I’ve been practicing as a neuromuscular therapist, I’ve noticed the majority of people don’t really know how to take responsibility for their body/pain. They think pain is only due to injury or comes automatically with getting older. Most of my new clients don’t realize they have any control whatsoever over their situation. They tend to think all injuries are accidental happenstance. Not many are educated about the cause and effect relationships of the human body and postural influence over the long term that may predispose us to a particular injury. We were taught at an early age that brushing our teeth is very important, and we understand the consequences, and most have incorporated this habit into their daily routine. But no one seems to be out there teaching about the  consequences of  poor posture and how it contributes to physical breakdown and pain.
               Two basic natural laws applicable are the Law of Cause and Effect and the Law of Gravity. The Law of Cause and Effect states that every consequence (effect) has a cause. If one desires a certain outcome, one must identify and then enact the course of action in order to produce the desired results. For example, a beautiful lush garden (the effect) requires a certain course of action (the cause). If a gardener fertilizes but does not weed the beds, the garden will not immediately perish altogether, but it will
not attain the potential health and beauty the gardener could achieve with a more complete operation. The two actions are inconsistent—fertilizing promotes garden health, while allowing weeds to remain attacks the viability of the garden.
In the same way good health also requires a specific course of action. An individual who eats a healthy diet but does not exercise will not necessarily fall into immediate ill health. Nonetheless, this inconsistent practitioner will certainly not achieve the full level of health and fitness that would be possible from the addition of exercise.
Basically, the law of gravity submits that each object in the universe attracts each other object. Gravity is the force of attraction between the physical human body and the earth upon which it stands. It is actually gravity that is the premise for what makes posture good or bad-efficient or inefficient. This becomes very important when exploring body mechanics and why poor posture can cause muscle pain. We'll explore this much more later.
So many people seem to think at some magic age (forty?) that their body is destined to develop aches and pains and begin to ‘fall apart.” But it is not simply a matter of how much time you’ve been alive on the planet that determines how your body feels, it’s much more about the postures and positions in which your body has spent that amount of time.
             In the next few blog entries, I'll explain a little about the physiology of your body by comparing the human form to something you, as a gardener, already understand. For example, you know that if you want healthy, robust plants you must add the right fertilizer to the soil. And you know that different combinations and proportions of nutritional elements will promote different characteristics in your plants. The same nutritional parallels apply to your body. Next time we'll  explore  a bit about fertilizer and nutrition for healthy tissue on a cellular level so your muscles have the ingredients necessary to perform in the garden. 
           On second thought, I should probably jump right in with the ergonomics of Raking Leaves!


What a fantastic weekend it has been in Nashville!! As promised, I went out to rake some leaves. Notice I said 'some' leaves. The color and texture they provide for my eyes, makes me reluctant to pick them all up in a perfect manicure. And anyone who's seen my lawn will be splitting their sides with laughter at the thought of me and 'perfectly manicured' existing in the same sentence.  I was tempted to
simply mulch them with the lawn mower, but I decided to remind myself firsthand of the experience I want to share. Here are a few tips and take-aways. Most of this is simplified from the pages of my book by the same name, without all the physiological explanation and anatomical detail that surrounds it. Are you old enough to remember Cliff Notes???

Once or twice every year we find ourselves outside raking leaves because we want the yard and garden to be free of ground litter.  Let me empasize that this is not done simply for looks! Getting the leaves up will reduce the growth of molds and fungi and avoid smothering our grasses. Need to let in that cool sunlight to nourish their root systems..

  • The Reaching and Pulling patterns of raking affect the back and shoulders. The leverage factor comes into play.  Hand and foot positions will also affect the efficiency of this action and the likelihood of developing muscle soreness. If you will think about using your whole body - feet are firmly planted and knees stay loose, the back is the powerhouse and the arms create the movement.
  •  Activating the abdominal muscles during raking and hoeing activities can protect the shoulders and put more power in the motion. Just pull your belly button in slightly and keep the lower Abs engaged while you work. This will help stabilize your spine. Keeping the spine supported is key is just about any movement. 
  • Work from both sides alternately-Frequently swapping sides and changing hand and foot placement will decrease the development of muscle soreness, increase coordination and balance, and allow you to work longer and more effectively. 
  • Do not hoe or rake  by bending and twisting simultaneously! This is one of the most frequent causes of low back injury. The lumbar vertebrae are simply not designed for flexion and rotation at the same time. Try to rake from a more upright posture. If you hold as far up the handle as you can, it will be easier to keep your back in a good position.
  • And don’t try to reach too far out in front of you. Let your arm length guide your stroke.  When your torso is bent from the waist, the low back muscles must work overtime and fatigue quickly. When you continue to work after the muscle has given out – given up all it’s energy– there’s stiffness and aching almost certainly coming your way. Try to stay erect in good posture, engage your abdominal muscles, stabilize and push off with your legs and let your shoulders and latissimus do the pulling. Work the area within your reach and then move to access the next section.
  • Don't forget about your wrists! Keep them in a neutral position and let your elbow do more of the work while fully supported  and powered by your latissimus dorsi and abdominal obliques. In recent years there are many ergonomically designed rakes on the market. They offer extra long and curved handles which help protect your wrists and back and reduce strain.
       Fiskars is a great place to start when looking for more ergonomically designed tools


For a healthy garden, whether vegetable or floral, we need nutrient-rich soil, proper preparation of that soil, adequate sunlight for photosynthesis, water in regular amounts sufficient for strong root development and good drainage.  We need a nice allotment of insects and bees to help pollinate and eat harmful bacteria and pests. And we need regular maintenance in the form of fertilizing, deadheading, weeding, cleaning out leaves and debris, staking tall plants and trailing vines, turning and aerating the soil, so it won’t compact and become hard and deter proper root growth, and mulching for protection and moisture retention. The human body requires all those same ingredients to be healthy and robust. 
I remember as a child I used to think that you simply put a plant in the ground and it grew to its potential without any additional attention. At the time, I didn’t recognize that
 we have the opportunity and ability to shape, nourish, and train those plants to bring out their utmost beauty and health. I always wondered why the neighbor’s plants were so lush and beautiful while mine were spindly, and had only a few small blossoms. A seasoned gardener would never think of just sticking a plant in the ground and letting nature take its course—taking the approach that “whatever happens – happens”.  Why do we accept that philosophy with our physical bodies? We have to intervene if we want to shape our physical health the way we shape our gardens. My favorite saying is, "If your lifestyle doesn't control your body, eventually your body will control your lifestyle. The choice is yours."
 Since I am not a nutritionist, nor a doctor, it is not within my scope of practice to prescribe a precise nutritional intake for the human body. It is not my intention to offer medical advice here.  I simply want to present you with a new paradigm for looking at the way you treat your inner landscape and the results you are likely to achieve from your choices.
 Nor is it my intention to teach you how to garden. I’ll leave that to the Pros. Master Gardeners and Horticulturists abound; Bodies are my business and that’s where I’ll confine my focus.  My intention is simply to explore with you a comparison of the elements of your garden  that you know so well, with the physiology of your body so that you will recognize the ways in which you have control to protect against injury and discomfort.
 For some of you the new perspective might be that food is actually fuel (fertilizer) and not simply a social event or a security blanket. And for others, that you can manipulate your internal environment to determine  not only your muscle strength and endurance, but your joint health and your overall well being. You can change your body in the same way your can manipulate the soil in your garden to determine the quality and characteristics of your plants.
Once we’re in the swing of thinking about nurturing our bodies with the same kind of empowerment we exert over our yards, we’ll get into biomechanics; specifically, what causes pain and how to prevent it while you’re working to improve your landscape. You already know having Good Bones in your garden is a must for year round beauty and interest. Good Bones in gardening terminology simply means good basic structure and in this case parallels an efficient postural alignment in the human. By learning how to position your body during the necessary activities of planting, weeding, mulching and pruning, you’ll be much less likely to injure yourself and won’t feel so lousy after doing something you love to do.
The winter garden is where we see the true bones of the bed, when it's stripped of all the greenery and fluff. An excellent time to evaluate and assess the condition of the structure. So let's start there next time.

Good Bones = the Hardscape = Human Posture

My computer fried last week just as I had taken a week off from work to do so much writing and organization. C'est la vie!  But I'm able to limp along with some auxillary tech help, so here we go......
Overall structural design is what gives a garden its ‘bones’ or framework. When we say a garden has ‘good bones’ we are usually referring to an engaging placement of the solid, more permanent landscaping features.  A successful hardscape of pathways, fences, arbors, water features, trees, or shrubs provides the armature upon which you build and shape the garden with your plantings. These are the things that remain constant even through the dormant seasons.  They define your little paradise, providing interest and contour, until they are utilized again in the spring to function as support for the movement of the garden when those creeping phlox spill over the walls and wisteria climbs up over the arbors.
Just as the garden benefits from having a good structural design, the human body also needs to have a solid and well-placed framework upon which to
 build its shape with muscle. This underlying structure is of course our bony skeleton. The design or arrangement of these bones when displayed in the body is called posture. One of my teachers once defined posture as “the position where movement begins and ends.”  And as with the garden hardscape, our body posture remains supportive even when we are dormant—until it is utilized again to support the movement and function as our muscles are called upon to do work.
Establishing good bones makes it so much easier to develop and maintain a successful garden. And we can all recognize a good garden design/composition when we see one. In a very similar way, maintaining good body posture paves the way for an easier lifestyle by producing healthy joints and pain-free movement. But how many of us can recognize a good postural arrangement?  Just what is it that makes posture good or bad, anyway?   
Creating a garden with good bones means that it is an aesthetically pleasing design; it displays order and a sense of beauty to our eye. Different people are drawn to different types of garden designs, from the formal, symmetrical style to the loose asymmetry of a cottage-style planting. However, a recent study discovered that what people are most attracted to in other people is always symmetry. Symmetrical features in the human form almost always reflect overall health and fitness. Evidently, our perception of order and beauty in the human body is equated with the body’s ability to function efficiently with ease and grace.   And that’s exactly the same standard for qualifying good posture.
Your mother may have told you good posture meant sitting up straight or pulling your shoulders back. You may be old enough to remember walking with a book on your head to practice good posture. And while those things do contribute to developing better positioning, it may not be for the reasons you think. Yes, it does make us look nicer, (and more symmetrical) but remember, the way we look is only a reflection of our health and fitness. I’d like you to start thinking of posture in a different way—not in terms of image, but rather in terms of function.
I don’t really like using the terms “good” and “bad” where human posture is concerned. Those terms imply a value or virtue. And while there is value in maintaining good posture, here the term relates to biomechanical efficiency. Good posture is the position that lets your body move without strain. Bad posture would then be any position that puts strain on the muscles and thus on the joints and sets you up for injury, pain and negative long-term consequences.
And it’s our old friend gravity that dictates whether your body posture is efficient or not. The mechanics of posture consists of balances and counterbalances as our bodies interact with the earth’s gravitational field. Here’s how it works: Remember gravity is the vertical force that draws us toward the center of the earth, exerting a pressure on our bodies of approximately 15 pounds per square inch.  That’s like having a bowling ball or stacked on every square inch of your body!  Every time we stand up we have to push our way up through that gravitational force that’s pushing us down. It is gravity that gives us weight. And we need to support that weight upon the bones of our skeleton—our hardscape, our framework— so that our muscles can be relaxed, unstrained and free to create movement when we ask them to.
Here’s a little test: Take a flower pot filled with dirt and hold it straight out to your side. Notice how it starts to feel heavy; and how quickly your arm begins to get tired because there is nothing underneath it to oppose the force of gravity which is pushing it down. Your shoulder muscles are the only things doing the work of holding your arm up.
 Now hold the pot straight up over your head. It doesn’t feel as heavy anymore, does it? That’s because the weight of the pot is now being supported by the hard structure of the bones in your body from the arm all the way down your body to your feet.
Sitting in your chair as you read this, your body weight is supported against the force of gravity by the hard structure of the furniture underneath you and your muscles can remain relaxed. Now try putting your body in a sitting position without having the chair under you. There is no longer anything holding you up; nothing supporting your body weight against the force of gravity which is pulling you down; Nothing, that is, except the strength of your leg muscles which are not designed for this purpose and which will rapidly tire from the exertion of this exercise. (Like squatting in the garden for a few hours)
In the body, the most important impact of having a good armature is the proper skeletal support so your muscles can remain at ease and your joints are not compressed. Good posture is dependent on keeping our bones in a particular stack to hold up our body weight and keep it solidly supported against the force of gravity. We want the weight of the head (which weighs about the same as a small Boston fern) to be supported by the bones of the neck; and the weight of our arms and torso supported evenly by our spine and hips; and the weight of our hips supported by the bones of our legs and feet. If not, then our muscles have to hold us up and they are not designed to do that. Muscles are designed for movement. As we noted with the chair example, when muscles are using their energy to do the work of supporting the body, they will fatigue quickly without any additional activity.
           OK, so how do we get the bones to line up and remain in an efficient arrangement? Bones cannot move by themselves. Muscles move bones. All muscles work in pairs, or paired groups. And each pair of  muscles controls a joint. When you plant a new tree, if it’s as tall as you are, you most likely will stake it with guy wires on two or even three sides to keep it stable, upright, and growing straight. If one of the ropes is shorter than the others, the tree will lean toward the shorter side. If one rope becomes slack or  breaks, the tree will fall or lean away from that side. It’s all about balance. There   must be equal length and tension between the anchored ropes. Those guy wires imitate how the muscles work to keep your bones and joints in good placement. 
         Well, I've got to go to a great party now at the home of a  local artist who removes most of his  furniture and repaints the floor, walls and ceiling  white and displays his art which is fabulous and fun.   Now that I have computer access again, I hope to write more frequently.

6 June 2012

Now here's an interesting article I came across recently. More for my Gardening page than about Posture, but health-related nonetheless. Enjoy!

Why Gardening Makes You Happy and Cures Depression
Written by Robyn Francis   

While mental health experts warn about depression as a global epidemic, other researchers are discovering ways we trigger our natural production of happy chemicals that keep depression at bay, with surprising results. All you need to do is get your fingers dirty and harvest your own food.
In recent years I’ve come across two completely independent bits of research that identified key environmental triggers for two important chemicals that boost our immune system and keep us happy - serotonin and dopamine. What fascinated me as a permaculturist and gardener were that the environmental triggers happen in the garden when you handle the soil and harvest your crops.