April showers bring May flowers… meaning gardening season is fast approaching! For some gardening is a hobby, others it is a chore. However, have you thought of it as an exercise? Gardening is more physical than most of us realize.
After logging five hours in the dirt last spring digging, weeding, bending, and planting I found myself noticing muscles that I forgot existed! This made me think, how do some of my patients do this week after week? It’s no surprise that our muscles and joints put up a fight; gardening requires flexibility and strength of nearly our whole body. The key to having the perfect garden along with a pain free body is having proper body mechanics and making sure your body is warmed up for the task at hand.
Common mistakes seen during gardening are repetitive forward bending or twisting with your back. Whether you are standing or sitting; bending forward places high levels of stress on the disc throughout your spine. Forward flexion has been shown to increase disc pressure by 150%, while twisting places excessive torque on the discs (1). Now multiply that by the 100 plus times you bent forward while weeding… YIKES!
This is where you are all saying to yourselves “how can I garden without bending?!” Don’t panic. The lumbar spine is designed to bend 40-60 degrees and twist only 15 degrees. However our hips can bend forward upwards of 120 degrees and pivot 30-60 degrees in each direction(2). While gardening it is key to keep a straight spine and move from the hips! This can be achieved while sitting, standing, or kneeling by keeping your chest up and engaging your abdominal and glute muscles. In the therapy world we call this the “hip hinge.” Take a look at the photos below. Note how the spine stays straight in the second photo. He is able to shift his hips back and allow for slight bending at the knees to reach the ground and lift the basket.
We can avoid twisting by pivoting on our hips, as shown below. If pivoting is too challenging try picking up the feet to moving your body as one unit.
An athlete would not go into a game without warming up. You should follow suite, warm up before asking your body to be physically active. This is especially critical for those who do not regularly participate in other physical activity. Any warm up should target the areas which will be used the most. In gardening your warm up should focus on the low back, hips, shoulders, hands/ wrists.
A brisk walk is a great place to start to engage the cardiovascular system. Physical activity increases the demand for blood flow to the muscles. Increasing your heart rate will speed up the delivery of blood, making your muscles prepared to lift, carry, grip, and bend.
Follow your walk with a quick routine of stretches. Let’s target the hips and back first. Perform several forward bends while keeping your chest up to practice your “hip hinge.” Then, go in the opposite direction. Place your hands on your hips and gently bend backward within a comfortable range of motion. Next try squeezing your shoulder blades together to help loosen the shoulders and upper back. Lastly move on to your hands and wrists. Bending and extending the wrists to stretch the forearms should ease the soreness which comes with a lot of gripping. Tailor the repetitions to fit your needs, the warm up should not be an exhaustive routine. It is merely designed to get things moving in the right direction to avoid injury.
It is important to understand that gardening places a high amount of physical stress on areas of our bodies which may be rarely used. This does not mean to avoid the garden! Gardening has been proven to provide a host of physical, emotional, and mental benefits (3). Listen to your body while you are gardening. Switch positions frequently to avoid fatigue and cramping. Lastly, start slow. Your first day in the garden should not exceed 30- 60 minutes depending on your level of activity. As your body gets more accustomed to gardening you may increase the amount of time you spend there.
1. Nachemson, Alf, and G. O. S. T. A. Elfstrom. “Intravital dynamic pressure measurements in lumbar discs.” Scand J Rehabil Med 2.suppl 1 (1970): 1-40.
2. O’Sullivan, Susan B., and Raymond Siegelman. National Physical Therapy Examination Review and Study Guide. Evanston, ILL: International Educational Resources., n.d. Prin
3. Flake, Josh. “Body Mechanics, Adaptive Gardening Tools, and Physical Benefits of Gardening.” Health Cananda (2012): 1-30. Web.