May 16, 2020

Pain-Free Gardening Tips: How to enjoy the garden season with no post-gardening body aches.

Living in a four-season climate often finds us doing activities with gusto that we haven’t done since the previous year. It’s not uncommon for Massage Therapists to see a seasonal trend in injuries, aches, and pains. In the winter we often see patients come in with increased incidences of pain and injuries from snow shovelling, skating, and skiing. Summer time injuries have been attributed to water skiing, jumping off the dock at the cottage, marathon bike rides, and of course the avid golfers who try to sneak in as many rounds as possible in that short season. During spring time the big culprit is gardening. After months of being cooped up indoors we get so excited to see the first shoots of green and pop of colour, we want to get in the garden and do it all at once. Unfortunately we sometimes end up paying for that when we wake up in pain the next morning!

Here are a few simple tips to help keep you pain-free this gardening season. **All of the exercises and stretches that are marked in quotations will have descriptions listed separately at the bottom of the article.

1 - Start simple: Don’t feel you need to do all your gardening at once. It is an ongoing process throughout the season so break up your chore list to shorter manageable tasks. Your body will thank you the next day if you spend a few shorter 30-60 minutes sessions in the garden as opposed to a 4-hour marathon doing it all at once.

2 - Warm-up before you start: Gardening may not sound like it’s physically demanding but there can be a lot of repetitive movements and positioning your body isn’t used to. It’s a good idea to warm your muscles up before you start by taking a short walk around your yard or neighbourhood. Your hips, thighs, and glutes (bum muscles) will be doing a lot of work to keep you balanced so some simple ‘squats’ and ‘lunges’ will help target and activate these muscles before you get started. The ‘bridge pose’ will also help activate your glutes, thighs and low back. Your low back will also take some of the strain so some ‘cat-cow’ stretches and ‘cobra pose’ will help warm-up and mobilize your low back before you get started.

3 - Take breaks: Even a shorter 45-60 minute session in the garden can become repetitive so be sure to bring some water with you and take a break to move, change positions, and hydrate.

4 - Adjust your positioning: A lot of gardening requires bending over which can put a strain on the low back. If you are working on an area in the ground try to bring a kneeling pad to rest on for part of the time. It’s also handy to have an old towel or blanket to sit on as well so that you can change positions between kneeling and sitting. Also, make use of long-handled instruments for raking, digging, and hoeing to prevent you having to bend over.

5 - Use pots and containers: If you are prone to low back issues and bending forward aggravates it, or if you simply have limited space in your garden consider some container planting. By placing the pots on a table or shelf when you are planting or tending to them you can spare your low back from the aggravation of constant bending forward. Added bonus - it’s perfect for balcony gardening! There are many things that can be grown in pots - herbs, cherry tomatoes, radishes, peppers and all sorts of flowers.

6 - Avoid heavy lifting/reaching/twisting - Before you try to move that heavy bag of soil, or that huge potted plant, or those giant paving stones you’ve always been meaning to get to please ask someone for help! If you must move anything heavy be mindful of your technique. Be sure to bend at the knees, using your thighs and glutes to take the brunt of the weight. Position yourself closer to the object so you’re not reaching away from your body and avoid twisting your torso while lifting at the same time.

7 - Post-gardening care: Taking the time to stretch after you’re done in the garden will save you some discomfort getting out of bed the next morning. Key areas you will want to target are your ‘hamstrings’ (the backs of your thighs), as well as your ‘quadriceps and hip flexors’ (the front of your thighs and hips). Your ‘glutes’ (bum muscles) may also feel a bit tight from bending forward. To prevent low back stiffness and stretch out your low back you can repeat the cat-cow pose and cobra pose that was mentioned earlier. If you find your hands and forearms achy from gripping tools and pulling weeds you may want to stretch out your forearm ‘flexors’ and ‘extensor’ muscles. To also help reduce muscle aches consider taking the time for a hot epsom salt bath. The salts are comprised of magnesium sulphate, two elements that help reduce muscle aches and soreness.

So, to keep your body from resenting the garden this growing season simply keep your tasks brief, warm-up before your start, change positions and try to avoid constantly bending over, take breaks, and stretch afterwards. With a little bit of mindfulness you can hopefully enjoy a pain-free gardening season while bringing some greenery into the world!

Written by Julie Moore, RMT - a full-time Registered Massage Therapist and part-time horticulture student.

-- If you need any visual images of the following exercises a quick Google search will provide plenty of examples. If you have any questions regarding pain, injuries, or technique around exercises please reach out, I am always available to answer questions via email or phone.

Exercises / stretches:

Squats - Stand with feet approximately shoulder-width apart or wherever is most comfortable for you. Sit back and down, keeping the weight focused on your heels as opposed to the ball of your foot. This will help keep you from leaning forward and avoid strain on your knees, your knees should not go forward beyond your toes. You should feel the muscles in your glutes (bum muscles) working as opposed to your thighs. Keep your back straight. Squat only as low as is comfortable for you and while you can maintain good form. Repeat 5-10 times.

Lunges - Keeping your upper body straight, step forward with your right leg and bend both knees to about 90-degrees, ensuring your right knee is directly over your ankle and not pushed forward beyond. Make sure your other knee does not touch the floor. Push back to starting position. Repeat 5-10 times then switch sides.

Bridge pose - Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor about hip-width apart, heels directly below your knees. Press in to your heels, squeeze your glute/bum muscles together and push your hips up off the ground toward the ceiling, as far as is comfortable for you. Be sure to keep your head, neck, and shoulders relaxed and on the ground.

Cat-cow stretch - Begin with your hands and knees on the floor, hands placed under your shoulders and knees directly under your hips. Start with your back straight. Take a deep inhale and on the exhale round your back up towards the ceiling pulling your belly up towards your spine and tucking in your chin (this is the cat pose). On your next inhale let your belly go loose and arch your back down towards the floor, while lifting your tailbone and head towards the ceiling (this is cow pose). Only go as far as is comfortable for you, do not force it to a position that is uncomfortable. Repeat back to cat pose and continue cycle with your breath for 5-10 rounds.

Cobra pose - Lie on your stomach on the floor with your hands placed under your shoulders and your arms tucked beside your body. Keeping the tops of your feet, thighs, and hips against the floor slowly lift your chest up off the floor while looking up straight ahead, only going as far as is comfortable for you while you can maintain good form.

Hamstring stretches - To stretch out the back of your thighs either sit of the floor with your legs straight out in front of you or stand with legs just slightly apart. Bend at the hips towards your toes, as far as is comfortable for you. Try to keep your back straight and avoid flexing at the torso instead of the hips. Alternately, you can do a one-legged hamstring stretch by standing with one foot on the floor and the other heel resting on a short bench or chair. Keeping your legs straight bend forward at the hip, you should feel a stretch along the back of the leg that is elevated on the bench.

Quadricep/hip flexor stretch - To stretch your right quadricep stand on your left leg, bend your right knee and grab your right foot bringing up towards your bum as far as is comfortable. If your quads are very tight you can use a belt or a towel to reach your foot. Be sure to keep your back and hips straight and avoid collapsing into bent forward position. Alternately, you can do a kneeling lunge by kneeling on one knee and lunging forward to open up the front of that hip.

Low back / glute stretch - To stretch your low back lie on your back, keep your left leg out straight on the ground, bend your right leg at the knee and use your left hand to bring it across to your body to the left side. You should feel a stretch along your right glute and hip muscle and in to your right low back. Be sure to switch sides.

Forearm stretches - To stretch your forearm flexor muscles (the muscles on the inside/bottom of your forearms that run towards the palm of your hand) put your left arm out straight in front of you, palm facing the floor. Using your other hand pull your left hand up towards you so your fingers are pointing up towards the ceiling. To stretch the extensor muscles (the muscle group at the outside/top of your forearm that runs to the back of your hand) bend your left wrist down so that your fingers are pointing towards the floor. Switch sides to stretch the right forearm.