New PBS show ‘GardenFit’ helps gardeners head off aches and pains
After retiring from a career in marketing and public relations, Madeline Hooper was happily devoting up to five hours a day to one of her favorite hobbies — gardening. But the repetitive, labor-intensive work took its toll on her body, resulting in chronic neck and back pain.
When she shared her woes with a fellow gardener and friend over dinner one night, he recommended she see a fitness trainer who had helped him overcome shoulder pain by teaching him healthier ways to move.
So began a relationship between Hooper, a former trustee of Brooklyn Botanical Garden, and Jeff Hughes, a personal trainer for some 35 years who has worked with athletes, actors and CEOs. Within six weeks, Hughes got Hooper out of pain.
“I stopped having pain and I still don’t have pain,” she said. “I still can garden five hours, but I’m stronger now.”
Hooper was so grateful for what she learned she wanted to share her revelations with others. So she collaborated with Hughes on a new TV show called “GardenFit,” which aims to help people take care of their own bodies while also taking care of their gardens. The 13-week series began airing and streaming on PBS this week.
The show took Hooper and Hughes, who both live in upstate New York, all over the country. They met with gardeners ages 30 to 92 who had a diverse range of gardens and the physical problems that come with tending to your own landscape. Among their stops was the Peace & Plenty Farm in Kelseyville, where Melinda Price and her husband Simon Avery maintain the largest saffron farm in North America.
After reading about the farm in Martha Stewart Living magazine and noting the meticulous care that goes into harvesting every flower before the sun comes up, Hooper approached the couple about appearing on the show.
Each stigma of the flower has to be gently plucked by hand. Although growing the flower is fairly simple, the harvest of its delicate threads requires a strong back, good motor skills and endless patience.
“We think Melinda and Simon are special people,” Hooper said. “They changed their lives to start this amazing farm, which, by the way, they did not use any machinery to till. Talk about learning to use your body correctly. They were the poster children for that.”
Harvest is a pain in the back
Each episode of “GardenFit” focuses on a different garden and gardener who has their own set of issues. Avery and Price are both very tall. She is 6 feet tall and her husband is an inch or 2 taller. Both are in their mid-50s, an age when our bodies start to show wear and tear. While both love their work, the one thing they dread about harvest season is the lower back pain that comes from the constant bending for five intensive weeks each fall.
“We pick the flowers for about six hours straight, and we’re doing it in the middle of the night,” Price said. “We start at 2 and 3 a.m. It's really cold. Your muscles are not fluid at that moment. And because we’re on such a tight schedule, we’re not good about stretching before we go out.
“And it’s not just the saffron harvest,” she added. “We also have our four-season market garden, so we’re constantly bending to harvest. Gardening just requires a lot of doubling over.”
In each episode, Hughes and Hooper typically walk through the garden, often gathering tips from the featured gardener to share with viewers. Meanwhile Hughes, who has a degree in physical education and has owned fitness businesses in New York, Miami and Los Angeles, observes the gardener or gardeners, susses out their particular physical challenges in gardening and, later in the program, sits down with them to develop less stressful or damaging ways to move. He also may prescribe complementary exercises. The GardenFit team returns four weeks later to see how the new regimen is working.
“We come up with a habit I can help them change, and they’ll feel better that the aches and pains will be gone,” Hughes said. “We have to sit down and at the end of the sit-down, they have to shake my hand and say they have to promise they’re going to do this for four weeks. Fortunately, 70 million people are going to see that promise. If they all kept it, that’s good.”
Price said in addition to a lot of deep bending, she spends time on her knees reaching in unnatural ways that twist her body. Hughes showed the couple how to bend properly.
“He helped us use different muscles, to lever our torso up and down using our gluteus maximus muscles (in the buttocks) instead of our lower back muscles, which is such common sense,” Price said. “It was such an easy fix, which is the genius thing about Jeff’s work. It’s a super easy thing to do in our everyday work. It doesn’t take a lot of thought once you get in the habit of it, or special equipment.”