Working in our gardens is practically a national pastime, but many home gardeners forget that the popular hobby is also a workout that can trigger or worsen back pain, according to Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder and president of Atlantic Spine Center.
With 8 in 10 American adults experiencing lower back pain at some point in their lives – and a 2012 study indicating that half of United States homeowners garden every year – this powerful statistical combination has the potential to leave a lot of sore spines in its wake.
“Gardening includes a ton of repetitive bending, twisting, reaching and lifting, all of which can place your lower back at risk,” explains Dr. Liu, who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery. “But gardening and back pain don’t have to be synonymous. Careful attention to how you perform gardening motions can save you from stiffness, soreness and pain.”
Top ways gardening causes back pain
What are the biggest offenders when it comes to gardening tasks that cause back pain? Dr. Liu says the top ones include:
- Digging: Shoveling heavy dirt or mulch leads many to repeatedly twist their body, a motion that’s tough on the spine and can strain the muscles surrounding it, Dr. Liu says. “As much as possible, move your whole body when dumping the dirt out of the shovel,” he advises. “Take an extra moment to walk to the spot you need the dirt before releasing it, rather than trying to toss it a far distance.”
- Weeding: Sitting is a better position to pull mounds of weeds than standing, Dr. Liu says, because it reduces the up-down motion of the spine, which can cause muscle spasms in susceptible people. But even if you’re sitting, this repetitive motion is still necessary. “If you have to lean forward to grab a weed, keep your back straight and bend at the hip joint,” he says.
- Lifting: Whether it’s a potting soil, mulch, fertilizer, or even new trees and shrubs, hoisting heavy loads is a big part of gardening. It’s also a huge strain on our backs, Dr. Liu notes. “Get help lifting things, and bend from the hips and knees when lifting, rather from the waist,” he says.
- Dumping: You’re using a wheelbarrow for some of those heavy loads, right? Well, even dumping it out can mess with our spine’s alignment, Dr. Liu says. “Be sure to lift from underneath, using an underhanded grip,” he recommends. “Support the dumping motion with the big muscles in your thighs and pelvis, not by twisting the wheelbarrow side-to-side.”
Tips for preventing gardening-related back pain
Beyond being mindful of your back’s mechanics while performing common gardening movements, Dr. Liu says it’s easy to incorporate easy tricks into these otherwise-pleasant tasks to save your spine from harm. These tips include:
- Warm up: Treat gardening like the workout it is, Dr. Liu advises. “Slowly stretch before and after gardening in order to get your muscles primed for all the motions necessary,” he says. “It only takes a few moments, but stretching can really protect your spine.”
- Break tasks into smaller chunks: Doing the same task – digging, weeding, lifting – for hours on end stresses muscles unnecessarily, Dr. Liu says. “Instead, do 15 minutes of weeding or 10 minutes of lifting, and then move on to another activity. Go back to more taxing tasks after you’ve given your spine a ‘breather.’”
- Raise your beds: If you’ve already experienced back problems in the past, planting flowers or vegetables in raised beds is one way to prevent repeat episodes. “Bending, stretching and twisting to reach towards plants at ground level is notoriously difficult on vulnerable spines,” Dr. Liu explains. “Elevating your plants in raised containers that are a few feet off the ground can help immensely.”
- Try your hands and knees: If you must garden at ground level, try doing so on all fours. “Working on your hands and knees actually places the least amount of pressure on the spine of any gardening position,” Dr. Liu says, “even more than kneeling or working in a seated position.”
- Use quality tools: Your choice of gardening tools can have a big impact on how much work is required of your spine, Dr. Liu says. “Acquire long-handled tools that reduce your need to bend at the waist,” he advises.
Overall, there’s much we can do to be mindful of our backs while spending satisfying hours in our gardens, Dr. Liu says.
“There are many ways to avoid sowing the seeds of back pain while working in our gardens,” he adds. “Do what you can to make sure your crop of flowers, plants and vegetables doesn’t also reap aches and injuries.”