There are many benefits of reconnecting with nature when working in the garden, including stress-relief and cardiovascular exercise. However, there are also aches and pains from musculoskeletal conditions that can develop and dampen the enthusiasm of beginner to veteran gardeners. Dr. Paul Cooke, physiatrist, offers his top five tips to avoid these pitfalls:
1. Warm up. Gardening qualifies as a form of moderate whole-body exercise as it involves pushing, pulling, twisting and aerobic components. Consider warming-up before gardening with a 5 minute brisk walk to get the heart rate up. Also, perform some basic stretching and strengthening exercises targeting multiple muscle groups in the upper and lower limbs and core. Remember that if it’s been several months since you’ve gardened, you’ll use muscles in a different manner than accustomed. Don’t overdo it the first time out!
2. Prepare. Review a checklist of the gear you will need. Consider long sleeve shirt and pants to avoid insect bites, hat, sun block and good supportive shoes. Gloves should be somewhat form-fitting to allow for better fine motor control. Make sure you’ve eaten something beforehand that will sustain you for the physical exercise of gardening. Bring a water bottle to stay hydrated. Avoid frequent trips back and forth by carrying hand tools in a bucket. Consider a wheelbarrow or garden cart to transport longer handled tools and bags of soil or fertilizer.
3. Keep in mind positioning and body mechanics. Remaining in the same position for too long puts extra stress on the spine and joints which can make it difficult to stand up. Try to change positions frequently. Kneeling pads are available to reduce stress on the knees. A gardening stool or seat can be the answer for those who cannot kneel for long periods. Some gardeners prefer a raised bed planter that elevates the garden and reduces the amount of bending, squatting and kneeling involved. Lift heavy soil or fertilizer bags by squatting from the hips and knees while keeping the head up and maintaining the normal curvature of the low back.
4. Consider ergonomic gardening tools. Repetitive stress injuries can be minimized with ergonomically correct equipment. A trowel with thick-padded handle and non-slip grip requires less strength to hold. This can be especially beneficial for arthritis sufferers and those with carpal tunnel syndrome. Spring-loaded clippers and pruners that automatically open can also ease strain on the hand and wrist. Use a good weeding tool to assist with extracting those bothersome weeds. For tools such as a shovel that require using the entire arm, long handles can increase leverage and reduce bending and reaching. A bent shaft rake allows for better posture and less back strain. When watering your garden, a lightweight coiled hose is preferable to multiple trips carrying heavy buckets or watering cans.
5. After a day in the garden. Gentle stretching after planting or weeding can improve flexibility and reduce soreness of tired muscles. It is prudent to shower after time spent outdoors to rinse away allergens from pollen or soil. After a shower, be sure to perform a full body tick check. Mild muscle or joint soreness is considered normal and can be managed by icing the effected area for 15-20 minutes. Over the counter anti-inflammatory medication can be used for a few days if tolerated. If pain is more severe or accompanied with redness and swelling or if soreness lasts more than a few days, consult with your physician.