After a winter indoors, many of us are eager to get out in the garden. But if you’ve been less active through the colder months, rigorous yard work may result in aches and strains—especially back problems. UR Medicine orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Emmanuel Menga offers advice to help you ease into gardening while avoiding injuries.
Gardening is hard work, making heavy use of arm, leg, shoulder and back muscles. A day spent stooped over a weedy bed, driving an edger into the turf, or hauling heavy tools and yard supplies is a day of hard labor. And if you get hurt, you may be sidelined for weeks.
Follow these tips to help you avoid injuries common to gardeners:
- Wake up your muscles. Mild activity now will help tone your body before the garden beckons. If you’ve been inactive all winter, work some short strolls into your day. (If you’re starting from scratch, remember to check with your doctor before beginning an exercise program.) On days when you’ll be working outside, take a walk around the block before digging in.
- Stretch. Before your gardening session, gently stretch your back by raising your arms above your head.
- Wear proper gear. If you’re going to be kneeling on wet ground, use waterproof pads to protect and cushion your knees. Remember to protect your hands with garden gloves, and your skin with sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat.
- Don’t squat. Squatting puts a huge amount of pressure on your knees. Kneel if you need to do low-to-the-ground work. If it’s comfortable for you, use a gardening stool or cart with wheels.
- Watch what you lift. Big bags of mulch, seed and fertilizer are heavy. Don’t risk your back health by lifting more than you can safely carry. Ask for help loading these items at the garden store and when you get home. Divide the contents into smaller bags or buckets so they’re easier to carry around the yard.
- When you lift, check your form. Too many people bend at the waist and rely on arm strength only to lift something. Instead, bend at the knees and engage your legs to help you lift items. Avoid twisting your body when you’re holding something heavy—a common culprit for back issues.
- Water yourself, not just the grass. Staying hydrated is important, especially in warm weather when you’re very active. It will help prevent heat exhaustion and keep your energy up. If your body is dehydrated, your muscles will be deprived of electrolytes and be more prone to cramping.
- Take frequent breaks. Rest in between your chores, and know when to call it a day. Continuing to work with tools when you are tired raises your risk of injury.
- Recover. Reward yourself with a warm shower or bath, which will help ease muscle soreness.
Emmanuel Menga, M.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Orthopaedics who cares for patients with a range of back issues, including strains caused by everyday house and yard tasks. He serves patients at UR Medicine Orthopaedics, 1672 Empire Blvd., in Webster. For appointments call (585) 275-5321.