Gardening and yard work have many benefits. In addition to providing stress relief and an outlet for creativity, gardening and yard work are excellent activities to get us moving.
In fact, in the Centers for Disease Controls 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, gardening is a suggested form of moderate-to-vigorous activity.
Anyone who has lifted and carried 40-pound bags of mulch, stretched into hard-to-reach places to do some weeding or pushed a lawnmower around the yard understands that gardening is a workout. But, just like any other form of exercise and physical activity, there are risks of injury.
If done improperly, gardening and yard work can lead to muscle and joint pain and repetitive strain injuries. Here are some basic body-mechanics tips to help prevent injuries and keep you gardening safely.
Maintain the natural curves of the spine as you work. The neck and low back should have a slight curve, hollow to the back. The mid-back should have a slight curve, hollow to the front. In this neutral alignment, the spine is in the best position to absorb shock, maintain balance and allow for optimal range of motion as you work.
Keep objects and work surfaces close to your body. This will prevent you from over-reaching and keep your spine in a balanced position. Work at waist height with elbows bent and arms at your sides whenever possible. Bend knees and squat or kneel to get to ground level for weeding and planting. If this is not possible, consider sitting on a garden stool or bench.
Yardwork that requires looking up and reaching above shoulder height, such as when trimming branches, puts considerable strain on the neck. Consider using a ladder or step stool, if safe, to bring the work closer within reach. Use tools with long handles to avoid improper bending and reaching altogether, or garden in raised beds if possible.
Avoid twisting the back. Turn by pivoting the feet, and keep hips, shoulders and feet moving in the same direction as when mowing around a tree or shrub. While pushing a lawnmower or wheelbarrow, keep the back long and arms close to the sides of the body with hands near hips. Likewise, when working in place, as when potting plants or pruning, make sure hips, shoulders and feet are facing the object you are working with. Keeping everything within arms reach will also help to avoid twisting the back.
Use big muscles for lifting and carrying, like those in the hips, legs and upper arms. When preparing to lift, think of the stance a football player takes in the line up: feet wide apart, tight stomach muscles, bend at the hips and not the back, chest stays higher than hips. Stick your bottom out to prevent the low back from rounding. Keep the load as close to the body as possible. Carry heavier items like terracotta pots with both arms rather than gripping with the hands and fingers to avoid a prolonged tight grasp. Better yet, use a wheelbarrow to avoid prolonged carrying.
Take frequent rest breaks. Stop every 30 minutes and evaluate your progress, have a drink of water, or just breathe and listen to the sounds of nature. Alternate periods of heavy work with periods of light work or rest. Avoid staying in one position for a long period of time. Switch sides periodically when raking, sweeping or using the shovel.
Break down a large activity, such as planting a vegetable garden, into smaller parts. Plan ahead and pace your activity, spreading it out over a few days or even weeks, to avoid cramming everything into the weekend and paying for it on Monday.
Above all, know your limitations and get help when needed. They say in health care that the caregiver needs to take care of themselves in order to provide the best care. This rule applies to gardening as well. When the gardener takes care of himself, the garden will flourish.
Elizabeth Doherty is a graduate of San Jose State University with a Master of Science in Occupational Therapy. She is an Occupational Therapist at Spaulding Outpatient Centers in Framingham, Mass., and Medford, Mass., and works with patients with neurological and orthopedic conditions.
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