After a colder than average February, reminiscent of my formative years in Timmins, Ontario, I think we'd all agree that it's time to move life outside!
For those new to gardening it may hardly seem like a demanding activity; however, seasoned veterans know there’s plenty of hard work involved. Raking, lifting, hauling, digging, aerating, and planting are all good exercise, but they can also lead to injury if the gardener isn’t prepared. If fact, 88% of Ontario's chiropractors report that gardening is the most common source of back and neck pain during the warm weather season. Like any new activity that hasn't been performed in a while, your body needs to be gradually re-conditioned to the demands.
Improper gardening techniques may cause repetitive strain injuries of the wrist and elbow, sprain/strain injuries to muscles throughout the body, especially in the lower back, and general wear and tear on joints and muscles. Here are a few tips to stay pain free:
1. Warm up. Take a short walk around the block or climb up and down the stairs a few times. The goal is to elevate your body temperature and increase your circulation. You can also do some leg, spine, shoulder and forearm range of motion stretches to get those areas ready for activity. Your muscles and joints will appreciate this prior to being asked to do work.
2. Alternate tasks and change positions. Switch between heavier tasks such as digging and raking and lighter tasks such as planting every 10 to 15 minutes. The change of body position with each different activity allows you to recover and avoid fatigue. Changing hands when raking or digging also helps to share the load on both sides of the body.
3. Have the right tools. An ergonomically designed tool with padded handles and spring action features can decrease the stress on your body. Make sure they are the right size and weight for you. Carts and wheelbarrows minimize the need for lifting and carrying, reducing your risk of injury.
4. Do the "scissors" when you rake. Stand with your legs in a split stance and alternate which leg is forward every few minutes. This will decrease the strain on your back.
5. Kneel to plant and weed. Constant bending strains your back, neck, and legs. Use knee pads for comfort and keep your back straight.
6. Lift correctly. Bend your knees, feet shoulder width apart, keep the back straight/"neutral", and tighten your core. Keep the load close to your body. Pivot at your hips and ankles if you need to change directions and avoid twisting your spine. Share the load if it is heavy.
7. Take frequent breaks. Three brief breaks each hour is recommended. Have a drink, stretch, or sit and relax. Life is busy but you don't want to make this a race. Spread the work out over a few days.
8. Dress correctly and hydrate. Your feet should be protected with thick-soled supportive shoes. This will avoid direct injury to the feet and best support your body to minimize back pain and muscular strain. Wear loose fitting, comfortable clothing to not restrict your flexibility. Also drink plenty of water to keep your muscles and joints moving freely.
Stop gardening if you experience persistent muscle and/or joint pain. If you experience back pain that lasts more than two to three days, contact a licensed health professional for an evaluation. This article is for general information purposes only and is not to be taken as professional medical advice.