By Nancy Alexander, PT
It’s finally getting warm out and time to get out into our gardens. Some up in the Northeast have waited a long time for this. It’s mid-May for goodness sake! So, out we go to breathe in some fresh air and get our hands dirty. That’s all well and good but how do you feel the next day? How is your back feeling? Are you sore all over? For some, that soreness is as much a rite of spring as the gardening.
I get it. I’m a gardener too. Trouble is, you go all in and go in hard. You’re out there for hours with nary a break. You’re squatting, pulling, pushing, raking, lifting, and likely more. You’re sore. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There’s hope.
One way to minimize soreness and pain after your first trip to the garden is to be active and in shape prior to it. Though not impossible, that’s hard to do if the weather has kept you inside until now. Let’s consider that a topic for another day.
What about now. I have been asked many times in my classes these past two weeks about how to decrease the pain. What can I do to help my body tolerate this better? What can I do to feel better now? There’s good news. There are things you can do to help decrease the pain, soreness and stiffness from this activity. Here are some tips:
- Posture – We have natural curves in our spine which should be maintained as much as possible while gardening. Gardens are typically on the ground, unless you have raised beds. Raised beds are real back-savers but you need the resources to construct one. To get to the ground you have to squat or kneel. If you don’t squat, but instead lean forward at the waist, you risk rounding your back and putting added stress on it. Please try to avoid this at all costs. I know kneeling can be painful which is why I suggest getting a cushion or knee pads to use when on the ground. They protect your knees and also allow you to keep better posture at your back.
- Tools – Try to use long-handled tools to allow for proper spine position and alignment. Knees should be slightly bent and try to work in front of you instead of side to side. You want to avoid bending forward and twisting at the spine as much as possible. Also, keep your tools sharp and in good condition year after year to avoid excess force needed to do the job.
- Micro-breaks – Take breaks from time to time. Try to get out of a certain position such as kneeling or squatting every half hour. You can walk or go inside and get a drink. Do anything to get out of a stressful posture frequently. Mix up your tasks to help you do that. For example, if you’re pruning a tree, cut some limbs (not all of them) and then pick some up to bring them to the refuse pile. Repeat this until the job is done. This is a lot better than doing all your pruning and then spending a long time repeatedly bending and lifting to take the debris elsewhere. Change up your positions and tasks as much as you can.
- Remove obstacles – If you need to work in a certain area, do what you can to remove any obstacles so you can work close to your body. Reaching out (and potentially over-reaching) is much harder on your body than working in close. Keep your work at arm’s length. This helps keep your spine in a good position to maintain your natural curves as already discussed.
- Save some work for another day – Schedule your next project for the next beautiful day. You can’t expect to undo months of winter in your yard in one afternoon. Slow down, enjoy the experience and be ready for the next time out there.
- Stretch – Stretching is a wonderful treat for your body. Stretching helps relax muscles and lengthen them and that means forces on your joints are not compromised. Stretching feels good, too. Consider it your reward for a job well done. Some of the most common areas to stretch include calf muscles (back of lower legs), hamstring muscles (back of thighs), and your trunk. Don’t forget your shoulders, too. If you have a stretching routine already in place, great! For more guidance on stretching, please contact me with your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So, get out there and enjoy the sunshine while you dig in the dirt. You’ve got some strategies now to help you through it. Gardening is good for the body and the mind. By using these strategies here, you can strengthen your body and have a reason to smile. We can all use both right now.