The Do's and Dont's of Gardening Biomechanics
I have talked to a number of people who are itching to get out in the garden and get their hands in the dirt this spring. This article is to give you a few tips on how to prevent, or at least lessen, those aches and pains associated with gardening. Many of us have some bad gardening habits of bending over and lifting with our backs and working at it too long to “just get this job done”. If you are doing moderate to vigorous gardening you are burning the same calories as if you were going on a bike ride. So you need to think of gardening as a workout and as such need to incorporate rest breaks and use the correct biomechanics for each job.
Here are a few of the common mistakes, that are easy to make, out in the garden:
• Working too long without rest breaks or body position changes
• Bending over in a stooped position over a wheelbarrow or garden bed
• Lifting with you back instead of your legs
• Using strong pulling motions (those nasty weeds) without a break and using arms without core/back
• Lifting something which is too heavy for you
Here are some ways to correct the above bad habits:
• Like I said above, think of gardening as a workout. In the gym you need to take 1-4 minute rest breaks during exercise sets depending on your age, body health, and intensity of exercise you are doing. So allow yourself to take breaks during your gardening to change your body position, walk around, or go get a drink of water. If you have a tendency to get lost in your work you can set a timer so that every 20-30 minutes it beeps and reminds you. Break your big jobs up into multiple days, so you don’t have the unrealistic expectation of getting it done in one day. Listen to your body. If you wake up sore and tired then it is OK to take it easy.
• Sometimes being in an awkward stooped position is unavoidable. But building or buying a potting table is a great way to bring the dirt and pots up to a better height for your back and body mechanics. If you can’t avoid the position then make sure you take those body breaks. A great tip to help that creaky tight feeling as you try and stand up straight is to contract farther into the curl/bend. Actively make yourself bend farther into it and then stand up. This helps turn off the splinting function of your back muscles so they will release better as you straighten up. Once you are standing during your rest you can actively extend your back to counter the flexed/hunched position you were in.
• There is a lot of lifting in the garden: rock, dirt, pots, wheelbarrows etc. Being aware of your body position is important. You want to keep your low back in a neutral curve (as best as you can depending on the activity) and engage your core muscles to stabilize your spine during the lift. Using your legs as the power will allow you to keep the back neutral and get your hips and knees to do the bending. For small objects there are other lifts like the golfers pick up that keep the back more neutral and use the motion of the hip to get your hand to the ground.
• When pulling weeds you can really overload your arms and shoulders. If you are doing shorts bouts of it then you probably will be able to get away with it. But if you are spending a lot of time using pulling motions or have sore shoulders, then it is best to lock your shoulder (engage your stabilizers of your scapula) and rotate with your back to get the power in the pull.
• When lifting remember your limits. It is easy to overdo it to just get that plant/rock moved, but it is best to wait for help or use a tool like a wheelbarrow to disperse the weight through the wheel or a lever.
The above are tips for you to try and use, but as always you need to listen to your body and do what is safe for you. If you don’t know what neutral spine or engaging the core is and/or have a history of injuries or illness it would be a good idea to find a qualified healthcare practitioner (RMT, physiotherapist, or kinesthesiologist). S/He can evaluate your body and suggest specific exercises to prepare you for gardening, educate you on your spine and proper lifting techniques and posture, talk with you about your gardening postures, and ways to counter the positions to take the pressure off your body.
Gardening is a great activity that combines all sorts of benefits: using your body through many of the different joint ranges and positions; strengthening the muscles; working on physical endurance; a great mental break to focus on the present moment and the plants and dirt; fresh air; and sun (vitamin D). I always feel a great sense of accomplishment after gardening and seeing all my efforts come to life. I hope these tips will help your gardening be even more enjoyable and easier on your body.