How to Avoid Back and Knee Pain with Gardening
by Cindy Binkley, FLT Columnist
Spending time in the garden is always a welcome activity after hibernating during winter. The sunshine feels good, and the fresh air brings hope for many enjoyable summer days to come. However, gardening can be exhausting, and if we are not careful, can even cause injuries.
Gardening can be a workout! However, if you follow the suggestions below you will have a better chance to keep your back in top shape as you spend long hours pulling weeds, hauling mulch and performing other gardening activities.
- Prepare to workout. You’re body doesn’t know it’s not going to the gym – it just knows its working. Warm up with some stretches before you start. Even better, prepare to garden by doing some core exercise, including squats and lunges as these movements are used a lot with gardening.
- Stand up often. Although it might seem like wasted time when you have a full day of yard work planned, standing up every five minutes will give your back a much needed break. When you spend too many hours slumped over your garden bed, it can be as bad for your spine as sitting slumped in a chair.
- Love your knees. If you will be in a kneeling position for a while use knee pads or cushions, and try to kneel on just one knee at a time, placing half of your weight through the opposite foot. This will also provide some counterbalance to the spine. Sitting on a garden stool is another good option to bring your work closer to you.
- Drink water. Besides keeping you hydrated, water also helps keep your joints and connective tissue properly lubricated. The looser you are, the better you will move, and this will make your task at hand a lot more enjoyable. Avoid stiff knees, a stiff neck and aching joints by sipping on water.
- Stretch. When you are working in your garden, most likely your knees are bent, your hips are flexed, and your spine is curved. Over time this can cause an uncomfortable tightness in your hamstrings, hip flexors and abdominal muscles. It is important to take time to stretch and lengthen these muscles either for a sustained amount of time at the end of the day, or for short bursts throughout the day. Do yourself a favor and periodically stand up and stretch backwards.
- Use your legs. When digging larger areas, try to use your legs as much as possible in a stable squatting position. If digging a large area, change the direction that you are facing so that you are not straining the same muscles for a prolonged period of time. When removing large roots be sure to pull using your leg muscles instead of your back. Squat down to pull weeds out of the ground instead of bending from the spine. This might seem like a little thing, but pulling from a bent spine position can cause a very painful back.
- Use good body mechanics. Incorrect lifting is the biggest cause of back injuries in the garden – always lift with bent knees and keep your back straight or only very slightly bent, do not stoop. Use a wheel barrow or ask a friend for help to move heavy pots, or bags of mulch.
- Breathe. Fresh air isn’t just a joy to breathe in; it can actually give you a very energizing and uplifting boost. By taking several deep breaths in a row, you will refresh your mind and body enough to stay focused on your task.
- Pace yourself. Many of us view a dry and sunny weekend as a chance to “blitz” the garden and often end up with an injury. It is safer to chip away at the jobs for one hour a few times a week, if possible, than to think your body will cope with two full days of digging, weeding and heavy lifting. If you have limited time try to vary your activity in the garden, avoid long stints of digging or bending. Allow your muscles time to rest by limiting each activity to half an hour before having a break or moving to a different task.
If you start feeling pain while gardening, stop, the roses can wait! Pain is your body’s way of saying it is tired and therefore vulnerable to injury. Should post-gardening pain continue for three to four days, seek advice from a physical therapist or your primary care physician.
Follow these suggestions and your chance of watching your garden grow without pain grows as well!