- Author: Paula Pashby
According to AARP, “an hour of gardening can reduce stress, boost bone density, and burn up to 300 calories, but if not done right, all of the bending, squatting, raking and lifting can compromise muscles and joints.” AARP The Magazine, July/August 2010: Linda Melone.
This statement made me think about how well I am prepared for lasting a day of gardening without the regrets of next-day soreness. Usually, I am pretty conscientious about my gardening ergonomics and selection of tools but I am always reminded by the many times that I went out and prepared for only a simple chore that turned into a hundred more. You know, like going out to quickly pull a few weeds, then snip a quick few branches, and it uncontrollably twirls into a full-blown gardening day that oftentimes turns into days recovering from sore muscles, low energy, and sunburn.
While on one of my recent marathons of again overdoing it in the garden, I did some research to remind myself of best gardening methods to prevent injuries and the stretching techniques I used when I was more of a runner but discovered that there is much more to learn. Here are a few tips I learned from my recent stint on the Internet with this subject:
Selection of Tools
- Use the right tools for the right job. I know it is tough to know the differences sometimes, but don't just grab the closest shovel, like a transplanting shovel, when you actually need a digging shovel.
- Clean and sharp tools work much better than dull, dirty tools.
- Gloves! Try to wear them (even if you love getting your hands into the soil) to avoid getting cuts, chapping and cracking. Also, it can't hurt to get tetanus shot every 10 years. The gloves with sticky surface or gripper dots might come in handy when using tools and picking up a dime.
- Garden kneeler set, knee pads, or a rolling cart to sit on prevent knee injuries.
- Long-handed tools – rakes, shovels, stand-up weed pullers, and hoes extend your reach and reduce back pain.
- Ear equipment is useful when you have prolonged use of noisy power tools.
- Eye protection…you know, that branch that just about poked your eye out?
- Look for lightweight tools that are easy to handle.
- Extendible tools decrease bending and are great for folks using wheelchairs: search on product maker's websites like Fiskars, Corno, Gripworks, Disability Work Tools.
- There are now a number of affordable electric hand pruners on the market that can help during an arthritic or sore muscle episode.
- Use tape, foam padding, or bicycle grips to improve grip and handle length on tools.
- For those of us who have “donated” tools to many gardens, paint them bright colors so you have a better chance of finding them!
Stretching Exercises and Posture
- Stretching and warming up is really important – treat this gardening activity just as you would like you were going out for a jog. Go for a quick walk around the block and do some stretches to get the body and muscles warmed up and running. Jumping right into gardening tasks before warming up can cause a lot of stress and injuries. AARP (https://www.aarp.org/health/fitness/info-10-2010/More-Raking-Less-Aching.html) has some great exercises to help stretch and strengthen muscles for gardening tasks.
- When bending, the main muscles used are the abdominals, back, and legs. To reduce straining, tighten leg muscles while bending forward and keep knees slightly bent.
- Raking mainly uses core, shoulder and arms – keep the rake close to your body and use quick, short motions.
- When you push a wheelbarrow, you use a lot of muscles: the main muscles used are quadriceps, hamstrings, chest, shoulders, and arms! Make sure to load the wheelbarrow with the weight you can handle without straining. Use leg muscles, not your back, to lift the wheelbarrow and then use arm muscles to move forward. A 4-wheeled gardening cart is more stable than the usual wheelbarrow that needs balancing while on the move.
- Need to do a lot of squatting? For squatting you will be using the glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings. Glute injury can also be very disabling and hard to stretch and/or heal. To minimize strain and injury, keep torso upright, lower yourself until your rear end almost touches the ground, and try to keep weight on your heels.
- Keep your back straight when possible to avoid back pain.
- Do not twist your back when performing a task – try to use the rest of your body.
- Tighten your abdominals to get your core working at its best.
- Keep movements flowing – do not stop abruptly.
- Use splints and supports as necessary and recommended by a physical therapist or physician.
- If items are too heavy, wait to get some help. The short wait for help is a better alternative to months out of commission.
- Raised beds – great for those with back, knee or neck problems. Try to make the raised beds 28-30” high, with easy access to the center so you can tend to the plants, and water from any angle without putting pressure on your back.
- Garden with pots, window boxes, and raised containers.
- Use retractable hanging baskets to easily pull up and down.
- Try to keep paths smooth for less tripping hazards and making it easier to pull wheelbarrow or cart.
- Install soaker hoses instead of dragging a hose around. (The plants usually like less watering, more deep soaking).
- Plant perennials instead of annuals for less digging out and replacement of plants.
- Adding organic material to the soil makes digging much easier!
- Along with using the right tools for weeding, you can be proactive and minimize weeding by putting down a layer of newspaper and then covering with mulch or weed mats.
- In warmer months, garden in earlier or later hours to avoid heat stress.
- Use sun protection – hat, sunscreen, UV protective clothing.
- Pace yourself! Change your tasks every 15-20 minutes to protect muscles and joints – do some raking, change to digging, and then move on to some weeding, etc. every 15-20 minutes.
- Stay hydrated. Drink a lot of water.
- To keep cool, use a towel or bandana around the neck, soaked in cold water.
- Work on a full stomach.
- Listen to your body and take breaks when necessary.
I hope these tips help prevent painful muscles and joints after a day of fun gardening – planned or unplanned!
- Agriculture And Natural Resources Environmental Health and Safety, http://ucce.ucdavis.edu/files/filelibrary/5810/43146.pdf
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- AARP The Magazine, July/August 2010: Linda Melone
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