That Day I Thought Gardening had Given me a Heart Attack


The other day I was working in this garden, digging up and planting large clumps of these Black-eyed Susans, when my body suddenly scared the bejesus out of me.

My heart was pounding fast and wouldn’t slow down when I stopped moving. After I sat down to rest and drank some water I noticed that my heart was pounding so hard, my chest appeared to be jostled by something.

So of course I googled my symptom and found this from the Mayo Clinic:

Heart palpitations are the feelings of having a fast-beating, fluttering or pounding heart. Stress, exercise, medication or, rarely, a medical condition can trigger them.

Although heart palpitations can be worrisome, they’re usually harmless. In rare cases, they can be a symptom of a more serious heart condition, such as an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia), that might require treatment.

Seek emergency medical attention if heart palpitations are accompanied by:

  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • Fainting
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Severe dizziness

And one of the possible causes listed is strenuous exercise.

My panic subsided and within a few minutes the pounding did, too. And I’ll talk to my doctor about it but I don’t really need her to advise me to slow down when I’m working in the garden. Because like everything else I do, if it’s possible without getting arrested, I’ll do it in high gear.

And I doubt my doctor knows how strenuous gardening is – hell, nobody but gardeners knows – so I’ll tell her that it’s digging, lifting, hauling, pulling and cutting, among other things that aren’t daintily filling my flower basket with blooms for an indoor bouquet. Except for watering, it’s all strenuous.

So I’m consciously slowing down and taking a breath between tasks. It’s frustrating, and humbling. (My ego’s saying, “Me, slow down? Are you kidding?”)

Other reputable google results told me I could reduce the chances of a repeat occurence if I make sure I’m not dehydrated or have low blood sugar when I do any strenuous exercise. So I’m trying to get some protein and water in my system before heading out to the garden. More slowing down.

Not Giving Up – Building Up!

But that’s not all, because I’m not resigned to letting my body simply decline with age. We start losing muscle mass at about 30, but that can be largely reversed with resistance training, something that has been missing from my exercise routine of cardio, stretches and abdominal work.

So I’m gradually adding upper-body weight training, and trying to up my protein intake, which as a pescetarian can be hard to do. (My vegan friends may tell me it’s a myth that non-meat-eaters don’t get enough protein but when I keep track of my intake, it’s usually too low by a lot.)

I’ve resolved to be stronger by next spring when my next birthday rolls around. And it’s a doozy.

Couple of resources:

  • Most inspiring for me has been the book Becoming Ageless by Strauss Zelnick. I bought it after hearing the author interviewed on the 10 Percent Happier Podcast.
  • My at-home arm-strengthening workout video. (One listening was enough; I mute it and listen to music instead of her yelling at me.)


  1. You should run this one by your doctor. There are several things that need to be checked. Source: was awarded my MD by legit medical school, not Google U.

    Don’t forget to include plenty of beans and lentils in your diet, if you aren’t much of a meat eater. They are a good source of protein, fiber, and potassium and very filling. Also, if dairy is acceptable to you, plain, nonfat, strained (not thickened) Greek-style yogurt and, surprisingly, potatoes are good choices.

    • Thanks, Dr. B, for the suggestions! Now how about suggesting some health websites we can trust? Coz we can’t see docs immediately, and none of them individually can know everything on the Mayo Clinic’s website or other good sites like it. (Maybe I should check – do you recommend it?)

  2. Susan, I’m glad you’re okay. As time marches (gallops?) along, I find I’m working in the garden, more and more, on my hands and knees.

  3. Susan, I can empathize fully. I’ve had a hard time admitting I am not as strong as I was, it was the first word I would choose to describe myself, so has been something of a depressing identity crisis. I’ve adopted a few of your strategies, but am still not doing the weight training I should (sporadic would be a huge understatement), and I have certainly noticed that staying hydrated has helped immensely. Having to stop more often to relieve yourself is the downside. I suffer from low blood sugar on occasion as well, so my quick go-to has become yogurt, or a few whole-grain crackers daubed with peanut butter, also delicious smeared on an apple.
    You’ve inspired me to start making my short at home resistance training regime part of my daily routine. I hope to report that I have fully adopted it as a lifelong habit. Take care!!

  4. Consider hyperventilation.
    1.Stooped over to plant or very active digging. Results in shallow inhalation.
    2. Shallow inhalation and greater exhalation = blowing off too much C02 (even if there is total lack of awareness of the shallow breathing.)
    3. Result – “hyperventilation syndrome.” Symptoms: Palpitations, anxiety, tingling.
    4. Many people who suffer “panic disorder” or “panic attack” simply are breathing abnormally at the time. Maybe they stooped over for awhile, or had an upset stomach and it hurt to inhale deeply. They’re told they have a psychological problem when it’s merely a bout of hyperventilation.
    5. Carry a small paper bag and breathe into it to rebreathe carbon dioxide, or if no paper bag, inhale, hold the breath for C02 retention, then exhale a bit more shallowly until symptoms subside.
    6. It is a normal phenomenon.

    Why we need C02:

    Now, if you have not had a treadmill stress test, it is advised, as it can pick up any heart abnormality which, of course, we are more prone to have as we age.

  5. I know until recently that I took my body’s physical condition for granted.–I thought I’d always be able to do what I’d done before. Now that I’ve reached my late 50’s, I’m re-evaluating. (Can’t pick up heavy buckets of water or pots anymore. Have to grab onto things to get up from a kneeling position.) I’m glad that you will talk to your doctor even though you think its heart palpitations.

  6. Very glad to hear that you are OK, and kudos on including some weight training, it’s one of the best activities to help us as we age. Since we get a genuine winter here in Idaho, there’s a stretch where outdoor gardening is limited or impossible. I have started to look at this period the way an athlete would, winter is my off-season and a time for getting my body in physical shape for the next upcoming season. Remembering a time when an injury or sickness kept me out of the garden for a stretch keeps the focus on staying in good physical shape in the off season so I can enjoy the outdoors. There’s nothing worse than being laid up and unable to get out in the garden! My off-season consists of water aerobics (for non-impact cardio), weight training, and Pilates for core strength and posture. I think too often us gardeners think of it more as a hobby and less as the long duration moderate to intense physical activity that it actually is.

    Also here’s a recipe for vegetarian Neatloaf, a “fake” meatloaf that has a good amount of protein from tofu and cheese. It’s really tasty and greatly enjoyed by even the meat eaters in the household.

  7. Toni Gattone is a great source on adaptive gardening – especially for baby boomers. Susan, you might check her out.
    Even though I am Gen X, I still using some of her tips in hopes of being able to stave off potential injury and extend my gardening years for as long as I can.
    I am looking forward to her book on the topic next year from Timber Press. Meanwhile, see:

  8. Another option for elderyarding is to think about changing the way you garden. Do you really need to continue growing clumps of perennials that regularly need to be divided and replanted? It looks like those in your photo are a foundation planting. Who is the primary audience for these? You or your neighbors? If you want color, consider replacing these with low shrubs that only need occasional pruning and may provide multi-season enjoyment as they bloom, provide berries for the birds, and even change leaf color in the fall if they are deciduous and perhaps are underplanted with spring bulbs. Gardening throughout your life does not necessarily mean you keep growing the same plants and doing the same garden chores. It’s not an either-or end game.

    • This is a very interesting post. Yes, as we grow older and realize we have a “new normal” of things we can no longer do in our gardens without experiencing some kind of pain, we must find ways to change how we garden and when we garden, for our greater comfort and safety. There are many good comments above, and I am discovering new solutions every day to work in my garden without throwing out my back (again). One thing that works well for me is to switch it up! Don’t do any one task for more than 30-40 minutes, then switch to another task that utilizes different body parts, or take a break in the shade. As I have just turned 70, (really?) I’ve come to realize what doesn’t work anymore, (like muscle strength in my hands or lifting and carrying bags of compost or pots) accepting what is, and looking for new ways to get it done.

      P.S. A special thanks to Kathy Jentz for her comments and referring people to my website where you can sign up for my monthly newsletter for more tips and techniques, and to find cool ergonomic tools you’re gonna love.

  9. Hi All, An interesting post, and great discussion. First I have to echo Dr Bean, get yourself to a doctor. I understand about the time it takes to get in as well as the cost. My suggestion is to take up yoga. Yoga is great for strength training, flexibility, breathing and especially weight bearing exercise. If you ( not just you Susan, but your individual readers) have or are at risk for osteoporosis yoga helps. All of these benefits help you garden. I am glad you are ok, but make us all happy and go get checked for sure. We want you around for a long time to come, because we like you to share your love of gardening with us.

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