Matt Tansley: What I Learned From BodySmart Gardening

Matt Tansley: What I Learned From BodySmart Gardening





Matthew Tansley

Matthew Tansley

Editor’s Note: At Kane County Connects, we’re always looking for ways to bring you information that’s useful, fun … and from a little different perspective. So when Land Use Planner Matthew Tansley of the Kane County Development and Community Services Department said he was going to take the “BodySmart Gardening” class and asked if we wanted a first-person story for, we said, “Heck yes!” 

Matt did just that — became our eyes and ears and wrote up this story, first published on the Food & Farms blog, which we highly recommend. If you love gardening, or if you’d like to become a gardener, there’s some great stuff in this article, in the classrooms of the U of I Cooperative Extension and on the Food & Farms blog! ]


The local University of Illinois Extension office hosted “BodySmart Gardening,” an hour-long workshop for gardeners with tips for personal protection and avoiding discomfort while working in the Garden. The workshop was conducted by Jan Hanson, a DuPage Master Gardener with 20-plus years of horticultural experience. Through her years of practice, Jan has devised a number of innovative and practical methods for making the garden a much more comfortable and enjoyable working environment.

According to Jan, the typical gardener will burn about 300 calories per hour of work. And since it often requires contorting our bodies in unnatural ways, she strongly recommends performing a series of stretching and warmup exercises. Jan proceeded to demonstrate a few simple warm-ups including knee hugging hamstring stretches, standing calf stretches and flexing from the waist.

Proper hydration, nutrition and protection from the sun are among the most important consideration when working outdoors. When exposed to the sun for extended periods, Jan recommends wearing protective clothes that cover the skin.

“Most outdoor retailers offer varieties of clothing that are made from materials engineered not to absorb heat,” she said.

She carried a bottle of water, which she often drank from and also used as a prop.

“A small to medium sized water bottle works well – each time you refill it you are taking a short break inside to cool off,” she said.

A high-protein snack before gardening is also an effective way to keep your energy level up.

Jan also emphasized the importance of proper movement and positioning when working in the garden. It is better to bend at the knees while keeping your back straight when lifting or crouching down. When working from a kneeling position she recommends placing one knee on the ground and keeping one foot down.

This positioning reduces strain and fatigue that will accumulate in the lower back. She also shared different styles of kneepads – including a creative alternative. “I picked these up at Goodwill,” she said, smiling and lifting a bra from her table of exhibits. “They make a great kneepad when you fold them together,” she said, drawing laughter from the audience.

Tools make gardening easier, but improper usage can lead to discomfort and prolonged injuries. When using a rake, Jan suggested taking short strokes while avoiding bending from the waist. Feet should be kept about shoulder-width apart, using your arms and position of your body to avoid overextending or lunging. She also demonstrated the use of ergonomic tools, which transfer their weight and resistance to larger muscle groups.

She offered some key tips when using tools in the garden:

  • Try to alternate positions and movements – repetition can cause strain
  • Metal shovels can be sharpened and require less effort than plastic variants
  • Multi-purpose tools can save time and money
  • Mark tools with colored tape so they can be easily found
  • Proper maintenance will extend the life of your tools (cleaning, sharpening & lubricating)

Jan emphasized that many tools and supplies used in the garden can be repurposed from other items. One of her exhibits included an old golf bag and cart that she retrofitted to carry her gardening tools and supplies. She also demonstrated how wire rimmed wastebaskets and containers can be used to deter thieving critters from your garden plants.

The DuPage, Kane and Kendall office of the University of Illinois Extension routinely offers training workshops and programming on horticulture and growing foods. This article was originally posted on the Kane County Food and Farms blog.