Sore back? 5 tips to help you enjoy a pain-free summer of gardening

There are plenty of ways (the right gear and a few stretches, for starters) to protect your neck, back and knees when you're digging in the dirt.

garden gnome

Photo, Lieven Van Melckebeke/Flickr.

With its emphasis on cultivating beauty and connecting with nature, gardening presents itself as a serene and relaxing hobby. But while it might be good for the soul, tending plants can be very hard on the body. According to the Ontario Chiropractic Association, gardening is the leading cause of their patients’ warm weather back and neck pain.

Thankfully, with a bit of knowledge you can easily enjoy a summer free of aches and pain.

Start with the right gear

As an avid gardener, Dr. Amy Brown, a chiropractor with Coronation Chiropractic & Massage in Cambridge, Ont., knows firsthand the havoc gardening and other types of yard work can wreak on the body. She explains that the first step in preventing pain is to start with the right equipment: Lightweight, ergonomical tools that are appropriate for your body height. Items like shovels and rakes should have handles that are long enough that you don’t find yourself hunched over. And skip the flip-flops. “Wear good supportive shoes,” Brown says, adding that you should look for comfortable running or hiking shoes that have thick soles and aren’t too heavy.

Another outfit choice to consider is a gardening apron, which has pockets for your various tools, says Julie Ardron, a registered physiotherapist at Toronto’s Ossington Chiropractic and Rehabilitation. That way, she explains, you always have what you need at hand, instead of having to do a potentially back-injuring twist to reach your shovel.

Ardron also recommends having access to a wheelbarrow. Carrying heavy objects — like a bag of soil from the car to the yard — is why many of her patients end up needing treatment.

Warm up those muscles

“Remember that gardening’s physical activity,” says Brown, who notes that we usually don’t work out at the gym without warming up.  While her pre-gardening routine often involves walking her dog, yours can be even simpler. “Three to five minutes of stretching can make a big difference.”

Since gardening is a full-body activity, “Do a variety of stretches,” says Brown. She recommends that gardeners check out the Ontario Chiropractor Association website for some simple warm-up ideas.

Once you hit the dirt, pay attention to how you feel and take regular breaks. “People tend to become weekend warriors when it comes to gardening,” says Ardron. If a certain motion feels bad, stop doing it and consider doing some more stretches.

Move like this and not like this

“Don’t spend the whole day bent over; try to kneel down and get close to what you’re doing,” says Brown. To make kneeling more comfortable, grab a pair of kneepads or a gardening mat.

Many gardening-related injuries result from repetitive movements, explains Ardron. “Spread tasks out so that you’re consistently doing something a little bit different,” she says. Ardron recommends that for every 20 minutes you find yourself in one position, you spend at least one minute standing up.

Lifting heavy objects properly is another must-do. Square yourself off with your load and then bend from the knees without arching your back, explains Ardron. When picking your object up, you want your quads and glutes to be doing the work with help from your activated core muscles. “You’re drawing your belly up and in and keeping that engaged,” says Ardron. Once your load is in your arms, “It’s really important to keep the object as close to the body as possible,” says Ardron, meaning that you might find yourself hugging a bag of manure.

Feeling stiff? Try these solutions

Most gardening-related aches and pains can be resolved with rest and stretches, says Brown.

Ardron recommends simple movements like neck circles. While standing tall, draw a circle, or a figure eight, with your head for 10 rotations, then reverse the motion. You can also easily stretch out the hip flexors at the front of your thighs to loosen up any stiffness caused by too much crouching and bending. Start with your hands on your hips in a half-kneeling position, as if you were proposing marriage. Your front knee should be bent 90 degrees while the other is on the ground. Next, lunge forward so that your upper body and front knee move over your front toes while your back knee and foot stay stay still. Hold this stretch for 30–60 seconds and repeat on each side three times.

If your back is bothering you, Ardron suggests lying down in a comfortable position on a firm mattress or other sturdy surface with your feet up in the air or a pillow under your knees. “It can lessen some of the back strain because the spine is in its most neutral posture there and so the muscles get a chance to calm down.”

Above all, she warns not to sink into a comfy couch, as that can aggravate a sore back. Says Ardron, “If you’re going to rest or relax, do it in a lying down position or sit on a nice, sturdy chair.”

When to involve a pro

“If (the pain) is diminishing and largely gone within 24 to 48 hours, than you’re probably fine,” says Brown. But if it persists, or if you feel significantly worse than what you’ve experienced in the past, she recommends you see a medical professional.

“With those injuries, the sooner we get working toward addressing them, the faster they’re going to go away,” she says.

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