Tips for Pain-Free Gardening

Matthew Gordon, PT, DPT talks about tips for pain-free gardening.

What is the most common cause of back pain?
The causes of back pain range from strains, sprains, disc injuries, and stenosis or narrowing of the spine to name a few. In regards to yard work and gardening strains and sprains are the most common because we are using the muscles in abnormal ways and typically we do not warm up before we start the activity.

People usually know that they have to warm up in order to do a sport – but do we really have to warm up for gardening?
Most people don’t think about warming up or stretching for gardening because they don’t think the movements are that difficult. But no matter what the activity is you should prepare your body for the event. While gardening and yard work do not have the explosive moves that sports have – people are still doing repetitive tasks and sometimes they will even stay in the same position for hours. It is the repetitive nature of gardening and the sustained postures that make warming up so important.

What are some simple exercises that people can do to help them warm up and get ready for gardening?
Doing stretches for the muscles of the back and exercises that stimulate the core are a great place to start. You want to do exercises that are specific to the positions and types of movements that you do in gardening this way there will be a direct carry over. A child’s pose stretch, a doorway QL stretch, bent over rows, and bird dog movements are some great exercises to start.

During gardening so many people kneel or lift – are there better ways we can do these activities to keep our backs safe?
Typically, during kneeling people go onto all fours and let their back arch – instead of this try kneeling on one knee and have the other foot in front of you, like you were proposing to someone, and remember to keep your back straight and your core engaged. As we get tired most people start to lift primarily from their waist – this strains your neck, shoulders, and back – remember that you want to keep the weight close to your body and use your legs.

While we are doing the yearly trimming there are always times when we will need to trim those high branches – how can we do this safely?
While reaching may sound like an easy task – it actually has all the components for an injury – you are overstretched while trying to use your muscles and typically you are up on your toes. Instead of trimming something while fully stretched out - use an extender or ladder to put yourself in a better position to complete the task. This will reduce the risk of straining your back muscles.

What are some practical tips listeners can use this year to reduce their risk of back pain?
One easy thing to do is to get the right equipment for the job. Equipment like kneeler seats are great for people who have trouble getting down onto the ground because it provides you with two places to put your hands, which enables you to use your arms to help no matter where you are in the yard. Also, using a two wheeled wheel barrel or a garden cart to move mulch, dirt, and plants can greatly reduce the stress on your arms and shoulders and also reduce the number of trips that you have to make.

As people age some have hip replacements and may be instructed not to go into some of the positions used for gardening – is there anything these people can do to enable them to keep gardening?
In the case where you are not able to assume certain positions you simply have to modify the kind of gardening that you are doing. Some examples of this would be to be to use raised flower beds and potted plants.

Is there any final thoughts you want to give out listeners as they continue in the spring clean ups?
I want people to take a moment and simply think of the kinds of movements that they do while gardening. You are repetitively squatting, kneeling, reaching, twisting, and balancing. And you are using all the muscles in your body to do these activities. This is why specific training is so important. If you are not working these muscle groups out on a consistent basis they will not be able to handle the increase stress that you are putting into them. If you have questions on what exercises you should be doing to help you stay safe while gardening or if you are already dealing with pain associated with gardening don’t let it linger – come in and see us at the Mettler Center.