Pain-free Gardening

Anne Stein, M.S.
Sports & Fitness Journalist/Author

Whether it’s tending a small plot of veggies, landscaping a large yard, or growing a few containers of flowers on a patio, Americans love to garden. But like anything physical, it’s easy to overdo it, no matter how fit you are.

With all of the bending, squatting, digging and hauling, gardeners who aren’t careful can end up with backs and muscles so sore that they’ll need a few days to recover. And if you’re already suffering from arthritis or a bad back, it’s especially important to adapt gardening to your body’s needs so you can still enjoy digging in the dirt – safely.

To keep gardening fun and pain-free, consider the following:

Don’t just jump right in. Just as you would with any other exercise or workout, take a few minutes pre-gardening to warm up with some slow, easy walking or stretching, and work for only a short period of time the first trip out.  Continue to slowly increase the amount of time you garden while your body becomes used to the activity.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. Spread your tasks out over a few days or weekends. Prune bushes one day, prepare soil another. Plant and water another day. The dirt will still be there for you.

Take a break. Work in short increments (15-20 minutes) and stand up and stretch in between tasks to avoid pain and stiffness later. Once your muscles get used to gardening, you can work for longer stretches. If you suffer from back, neck or other pain, work for even shorter amounts of time.

Switch positions. Stooping, bending and kneeling in the same position for long periods is extremely irritating to your back and knees. Change positions at least every 15 minutes. Walk around and stretch briefly to avoid muscle pain and stiffness.

Be weed-free. Reduce the time you bend over weeding by planting ground cover, or use mulch, peat and compost to stop weed growth. Plant low-maintenance shrubs and other greenery to reduce physical labor.

Plant up. Raised garden beds, at least two to three feet off the ground, allow you to sit on a chair, bench or garden wall while gardening, rather than bending over or squatting. They’re also a great decorative touch. You can also use large tubs or pots for raised gardening.

Lift and carry right. Dragging heavy bags of fertilizer and lifting large, dirt-filled pots is incredibly hard on your back. Lighten your load and when you do lift, follow these rules:

  • Stand close to the object you’re lifting and hold it close to you as you lift
  • Spread feet shoulder width apart for a base of support
  • Bend at the knees, tighten stomach muscles, and lift using your leg, not back, muscles
  • Don’t bend forward from your waist and don’t twist while lifting or bending

Dig gently. Heavy digging is notorious for causing back pain. Do some other activities first to ensure that your back’s warmed up and ready for activity. Don’t load your shovel with tons of dirt; light loads are much less stressful. Use your legs and slightly bend knees to lift and shovel.

Use the right tools. There are plenty of long-handled, lightweight garden tools, from weeders to bulb-planters, that’ll save you from bending and squatting.

Get a grip. A large, soft grip on your tools is easier and more comfortable to squeeze. The handle of your tools should fit the natural shape of your hand. Your wrist should be in a neutral/straight position when using a tool to avoid soreness later. The longer the handle, the more leverage you’ll have – and you’ll be able to use two hands, rather than just one, for trimming and cutting thick branches and vines.

Have a seat. A low stool or kneeler-seat, sold at gardening stores and sites, gets you close to the ground for planting and weeding without the stress of squatting and kneeling. If you do kneel on the ground, use a rubber or foam mat (also available in gardening stores) to cushion your knees.

Strengthen your core. Starting off with strong abdominal and back muscles is a good defense against a sore back.

Sore anyway? Stay out of the garden for a few days to give muscles a chance to recover. Apply ice and/or heat to sore muscles; hot showers and whirlpool baths can also be soothing. If pain becomes severe or radiates, consult your physician.

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