Summer is gardening season in Toronto – however, unless you have been diligently exercising over the winter your muscles may not be ready for the heavy lifting, bending and reaching positions involved with gardening. It is at this time of year we see an increased amount of clients with low back pain, hip pain and knee pain because of the stress gardening can place on your joints and muscles.
Gardening is a goal-oriented activity where people find themselves focused on the outcome -the beautiful display of flowers and greenery rather than pacing themselves to enjoy the process. Commonly, gardeners tend not to pace themselves; they become over zealous when purchasing flowers and want to have all of them planted in one day. I advise my patients to vary the tasks they perform -no more than 20 minutes at one activity before moving to another task and to take a water break every hour. This will decrease the stress on one muscle group. If your garden is large, then choose a section of the garden that you are going to work and leave other parts for another day.
I also recommend a light stretching routine prior to picking up a shovel or trowel – this will warm up the muscles, helping avoid strains and sprains as well as muscle soreness the following day.
If you are working at different heights then use aids to help decrease strain on your lower back -if you are working at ground level, use a kneeling pad so you can comfortably work the soil on all fours rather than bending from the waist. If you are working above your head, then use a step stool rather than reaching out of your comfort zone.
When faced with heavy loads, I recommend using a wheel barrel for transporting the load. Lift small amounts more frequently rather than one heavy load. As well, keep the load close to your body, bend from your hips and knees, aiming to keep your back straight while lifting through your legs -your back will thank you!
When doing rotational motions such as sweeping, raking and shoveling try to move your feet rather than twisting your body or using jerking motions. Most people are somewhat stiff through there mid back and twisting motions or reaching beyond your comfort zone can cause unnecessary pain.
Finally consider a gentle walk for cooling down and some light stretches before hitting the shower.
Remember that gardening can be an excellent form of exercise; however, the combination of flexibility, strength and endurance required can be a lot for your body at the beginning of the season. If you are experiencing pain please follow up with a physiotherapist or your doctor. Listen to your body, pace yourself and happy gardening!