Most of us know that getting outside is good for our health – in fact, research has shown that spending time outdoors in nature brings a host of health benefits, including improved sleep, better mood and a lower lifetime risk of depression (plus the much-needed boost to our vitamin D, linked to better immunity).  


The mood benefits may be related to the fact that natural light is a crucial environmental cue for our internal body clock (circadian rhythms) – listen to our fascinating podcast on this topic, Harnessing the Body Clock to Optimise Health. 


Why gardening is worthwhile 

Besides the satisfaction that comes from enjoying the beauty of plants and flowers (or enjoying the fruits of your harvest if you have a vegetable plot), gardening is a hobby renowned for providing both physical and mental health benefits. As well as offering a sense of accomplishment and connection to nature, gardening can also improve your flexibility. After a few sessions you are also likely to also notice improved strength and flexibility because you use different muscle groups while weeding, pruning, and harvesting 


You don’t even need to have green fingers to enjoy working in your garden; simple tasks like pulling out weeds or pruning box hedges can be surprisingly enjoyable. Of course, you can do as little or as much as you want (and at your own pace too) as you set the targets and the time allocated to your gardening.  


Did you know that your brain releases endorphins when you work in your garden, which has been associated with lower anxiety levels?


Building in extra time 

Peter Boyd, Arthritis Ireland Services Support Officer and Helpline Manager, who has rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, enjoys the switch-off that pottering around his garden gives him. “Whether it's painting the gate to prevent rust, clipping the hedges or touching up the verges of the road, I love the warmer weather and being alone with the work.  


“It takes so much longer than before (weeks sometimes). I have one of the kid's chairs or an extra grip and I take extra breaks, but it gets done. I always wanted a house in the country with a big garden, working on it like the Golden Gate is the pay off and something I enjoy.” 


7 simple gardening tips 

While gardening has many benefits, it can also be hard work for the muscles and joints of your hands and arms. Heavy or repetitive gardening jobs can be tough on the joints for someone with arthritis. But, by following our simple tips, you’ll get to enjoy all the benefits, whilst minimising any potential risks involved; 


  1. Practice good posture: avoid twisting or turning your trunk or neck when lifting anything. Lifting heavy items can put too much strain on your joints so try to decant thing into smaller containers (such as plant feed) and keep items close to your body when carrying them. Always be conscious of trying to engage your core and using the main muscles of your body so that you are not putting too much pressure on smaller muscles, joints and ligaments.  

  1. Take regular breaks: taking breaks prevents fatigue and gives muscles and joints a rest. While you’re up and moving about, be sure to stretch out your arms, legs, and back. Setting realistic expectations for the work that you need to get done and planning rest breaks makes all the difference, as does alternating between activities that work different muscle groups or joints. Limit any one task to 20 minutes, then take a 5-minute break and stretch. If you’ve been weeding for 20 minutes, stop and take a break, making sure to stretch. Then move onto another activity, such as raking, for the next 20 minutes. If this is not realistic, break it down to 10 minutes of each, or even less. Build things gradually and slowly, just as you would with any other physical activity.  

  1. Use arthritis tools: go for those with long handles (or add attachments, such as pipe insulation bought from a DIY shop to make regular tools longer) to reduce the grip strength required. Invest in knee pads (made with foam) to cushion and reduce stress on your knees when digging and weeding and consider a knee sleeve which provides mild compression for warmth and helps increase circulation. If your budget will stretch, a garden cart on wheels (one that allows you to pull your implements or compost bag behind you without a heavy load) is worth investing in, and you can even buy some with a built-in seat to allow you to sit whilst you garden or build in easy rests.  

  1. Avoid heavy watering cans: these are often too heavy to lift and put undue strain on your body. Instead, use a lightweight coiled hose which stretches as long as possible (15-20 metres). There are also thumb control versions available which allows one-handed operation to easily adjust the water pattern. The ultra-light design makes it more comfortable to use for those with arthritis without causing fatigue in your hand or wrist. 

  1. Consider raising the height: if you’re one of the lucky ones able to hire a landscape garden to redo your garden, now might be the time to consider raising up the levels of your garden so that everything is more reachable. This can be done with raised beds, but also by introducing some planting tables that prevent you from stooping or putting extra pressure on your knees when attending to your plants. For a less expensive option, grow your flowers, herbs or plants in small pots or containers that can be placed up at eye-level on a balcony or window ledge. 

  1. Make your garden a haven: remember, your garden shouldn’t be only a place where you pull weeds and make flowers bloom. It should also be an outdoor space where you go to relax. Make sure you include a bench for reading or a comfortable seat to have your morning coffee. Also, whilst gardening, it’s important to listen to your body and to go gently - don’t push through pain during tasks. You can always come back to the job at a later time after stretching and resting your muscles and joints. 

  1. Stay flexible with resistance exercises: a stretching routine before and after gardening can help avoid injuries. This is especially important at the beginning of the season when many of us are enthusiastic to get into our gardens and complete all the jobs that need to be done. It’s advisable to follow a specially designed flexibility video, such as the one Arthritis Ireland has designed for wrists and hands, hips and knees, shoulders and elbows 


After your gardening sessions, why not treat yourself to a bath with Epsom salts (the magnesium can help to relax tired muscles) and/or self-massage using a nice warming lotion on your joints, such as the one available on our online shop. Last but not least, always remember to wear a hat and sunscreen (plus drink water regularly) if gardening in the sunshine!