Urban gardener, Cleve West: Stretched to the limit

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The Independent Online

I can't remember having ever made a New Year's resolution, but my fitne ss has taken such a dive since I started this column three years ago that something has got to happen. The writing's been on the wall ... actually, let me re-phrase that, the slime's been on the leg since a moment last summer when, having been rooted to the computer screen for more time than is healthy, I was alarmed to see a snail stuck halfway up my leg, firmly attached to my jeans. The slime trail (snails would make rubbish burglars) started at my unfashionable turn-ups where the creature had obviously landed during my brief visit to the allotment early that morning, and had climbed up to my thigh where it sealed the hatch to wait for rain.

While colleagues in the office were disgusted by the trail of dried slime, I was more alarmed about the time I must have spent at my desk to let the snail get so far and so comfortable.

To combat my new sedentary lifestyle I've decided to start running again to try to attain a modicum of the level of fitness I once had when I ran a gym and competed for an athletics team. But the more I think about it, the more I'm questioning the wisdom of a radical remedy - why not just get down to some serious gardening? If performed sensibly, gardening is perhaps the best way to exercise, as it encompasses a whole range of movements. You only have to listen to the increased breathing rates of some of the Gardeners' World presenters to hear that it's good for the cardiovascular system. I'm sure I'm not the only one who attempts to gauge the fitness of the team just by the tasks they are doing. Monty, Carol and Rachel puffing while raking thatch or digging - all well and good. The sight of Joe Swift, however, panting away while pruning his roses is altogether more alarming. Of course, if they aren't puffing while raking thatch or digging, it's likely that head gardener there, Alys Fowler, has been waiting in the wings to take over the minute the director says 'Cut!'

I imagine there will be many New Year's resolutions to get out and garden more, but the initial enthusiasm that comes with this can end in tears if the zeal is not tempered with a little caution. Any period of inactivity (like Christmas) understandably provokes a will to do as much as possible - 'catch up' - and the heady mix of fresh air and endorphins often allows us to do more than was previously thought possible. Payback comes either with two days' stiffness or pulled muscles, strained tendons, etc. Back injuries are common, too, so take care to lift properly (straight backs, bent knees, lifting with the legs not with the back itself ). Tiredness in the garden, as I've touched on before, can also lead to accidents, especially where a power tool is being used, so it pays to listen to what your body is telling you.

The ideal complementary activity would probably be yoga. The stretching, breathing and bending exercises promote good posture and a general feeling of well-being. Most of the people I know who practise yoga hardly ever suffer from back trouble after gardening, and any Yogi will tell you that you're only as old as your spine. It's by no means easy and requires a level of concentration, discipline and patient perseverance, but yoga seems such a sensible way of keeping in shape. If I get fit enough I may take to spontaneous bursts of energy when visiting gardens - a race around the lake at Stourhead for instance; taking advantage of the downhill slope and sprinting the full length of the Piet Oudolf Borders at Wisley; or a fartlek (an unfortunate name I know - it means a mixture of slow and fast pace) around Kew Gardens. In case my plan to become 'The Running Gardener' ends in injury, I've ordered Veronica D'Orazio's Gardener's Yoga: Bend & Stretch, Dig & Grow - her collection of poses is designed to help us prepare for, and recover from, our valiant efforts outside. Let's hope it doesn't start with a 'snail pose'.

'Gardener's Yoga: Bend & Stretch, Dig & Grow' is published by Sasquatch Books

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