Gardening is a favorite pastime of many Americans. It is an opportunity to breathe fresh air, beautify your home and exercise your muscles. Back pain, however, can take the joy out of gardening. But a bad back does not always signal the end of your gardening hobby. Oftentimes it is merely your body’s way of telling you to correct your posture and be more careful. So, if you want to deal with your back pain and continue gardening in a healthy way, read on to learn 10 tips for safe gardening techniques with a bad back.
1. Get a check-up.
If you haven’t had a physical in a while, it’s a good idea to go see your doctor. “Most people with back problems start with an orthopedic doctor,” says Karen Lips, Senior Clinical Director at Friendship Heights Rehabilitation Center. “But most doctors will refer to physical therapists – you really need to get a full assessment by [one of us]. So, see if your insurance allows direct access to physical therapy,” she advises. Then tell the doctor about the pain you’ve been feeling in your back and make sure that he or she approves your health to continue gardening and find out if there are any specific actions you should practice or avoid.
2. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes.
Never garden barefoot or in sandals. “Ideally, you should wear some sort of shoe that ties up and has good cushioning and arch support,” says Dr. Krista Boline at the Logan College of Chiropractic University Programs in Missouri. “Also, it’s important to always wear socks because they absorb the moisture [from sweating] and that way you won’t slip.” Remember: Everything is connected in your body and protecting your feet will also serve you in your efforts to protect your back.
3. Stretch before you start gardening.
Take 5 to 10 minutes to loosen up your muscles and get your blood flowing. “Muscles work better and are less prone to injuries when they are warm,” explains Dr. Boline. She recommends warming up by walking around your garden a few times and stretching before you begin gardening. Start your stretches by clasping your fingers together and lifting your hands high above your head and then down to your toes. Lift your hands out to shoulder-height and then twist your torso from side to side, keeping your knees slightly bent and feet apart.
“A really good thing to do is to slowly do what you’re going to be doing in the garden before you do it. So, if you’re going to rake mulch, practice raking on each side of your body without actually touching the mulch,” advises Dr. Boline. Simple stretches like these will help you to warm up your muscles and lubricate your joints. Once you get started, you might also want to use a heating pad on your back to keep your body warmed up and less prone to injury while gardening.
4. Use proper posture.
This is perhaps the simplest and most important tip for people gardening with bad backs – you must lift and bend correctly while working! “If you have good posture when gardening, you are going to have less pain,” says Lips. So, instead of using your back muscles to lift, you should take advantage of the stronger muscles in your thighs and buttocks. “These muscles are better designed for that type of work,” adds Dr. Boline.
You can utilize these muscles by bending your knees, leaning over from the hips and keeping your back straight from the base of your neck all the way down to the end of your spine. If you find this difficult to do on your own, you might want to consider wearing a back brace for extra help maintaining proper positioning when bending and lifting.
5. Use a wheelbarrow and kneeling stool.
If you are going to spend a lot of time working close to the ground, use a lightweight portable garden stool to protect your knees and joints while kneeling. Make sure you don’t strain your back when moving from place to place in your garden by lifting heavy things on your own. If you don’t have a wheelbarrow, it’s a good investment for your health to buy one. Ask for help from family or neighbors to load heavy items into or out of your wheelbarrow or divide up a large load into several more manageable smaller loads.
6. Keep flowerbeds narrow and weed-free.
You will save yourself from straining your back if you don’t have to lean over lots of plants in a wide bed. Instead, design your garden so that you can easily maneuver around plants without having to reach too far. Also, make sure not to leave bare patches of soil where weeds will want to grow. Mulch the surface of your garden beds and use ground cover plants to maintain moisture and suppress weeds. This will minimize the need for bending over and straining your back to remove unwanted plants.
Don’t forget to breathe deeply while you work. Your muscles need oxygen for nourishment and relaxation. “Don’t take short, quick breaths or you’ll end up hyperventilating,” says Dr. Boline. Instead, make sure to take a few strong breaths every few minutes while working in your garden.
8. Take breaks to stretch and rest.
It’s never a good idea to stay in one position for too long, especially if you are leaning over or bending down and curving your back. “Your back muscles are paired side to side, so you don’t want to do anything one-sided over and over again,” explains Dr. Boline. “Take breaks so your muscles can readjust and relax so that they’re not more tense on one side than the other.”
Lips recommends getting up and stretching every 30 to 40 minutes. “Any time you’re [curving your back] too much, you want to go back and do the opposite,” she says. “We call it reversing the curve.”
Lips recommends lying down on your back and gently lifting your hips up in the air while working the buttocks muscles and back extensors. Then, stand up and reach up to the sky with your hands and then bend at the waist to reach for your toes. Lean side to side and shake out your legs and shoulders. If you feel yourself getting tired, sit down and take a break after you stretch to give your back muscles a chance to recover. “Rehydrate for sure, get a little sustenance in yourself and then get back out there,” concludes Lips.
9. Use appropriate tools.
If you use gardening tools with handles that are too short or too heavy to allow you to easily reach the areas you need, you will increase the likelihood of straining your back. Instead, try using lightweight tools with long handles or extensions. Lips sums it up, saying, “The more things that you can push into the ground with your feet instead of bending over and pushing it in with your hands, the better.”
You can also make sure the blades on your pruners are sharp so you don’t waste time and energy snipping the same area over and over. Use a gardening belt to keep your tools easily reachable so you don’t have to constantly bend over and pick up them up off the ground. And avoid using heavy watering cans. Instead, switch to hoses on reels or an automated irrigation system that takes your back out of the equation altogether.
10. Add raised beds and walls to sit on.
You can reduce the need to bend or reach by adding raised garden beds. If you prefer to work standing up straight, add waist-height raised beds with trailing plants over the side to hide the edges of the plant box. If it’s easier for you to sit while gardening, add raised beds encased by low walls that are wide enough for to serve as benches. Make sure you maintain proper posture while sitting on the walls of raised flowerbeds – pull your shoulders up and keep your back straight.
If you feel pain while you’re gardening, “that’s your body telling you to stop,” according to Dr. Boline. However, she warns against stopping all movement entirely. “Don’t sit down,” she says. “Go for a little walk, even if it’s just down to the end of the block and back. If you just sit down, you’ll experience swelling and you may not be able to get back up again.”
The main thing to remember when gardening with a bad back is to break up the work into manageable increments and to continue stretching your muscles throughout the process. Just like an athlete needs to cool down after a race, so too should you cool down when you’re done with your gardening work. Take some deep breaths and stretch again before going inside. “Try not to bite off more than you can physically handle and use heat or ice at the end of the day if you’re sore,” says Lips. Then take a hot shower to relax your muscles and drink lots of fluid to keep your body hydrated. Happy gardening!