Saturday, April 15, 2006

Protecting your Back while Gardening

Gardening is a fun, relaxing past time with long lasting benefits. People of any age, from toddlers on up, can enjoy the benefits of gardening. Tiny children can be taught to plant a small seed in a cut of potting soil, and they will marvel as they watch the new sprout burst through the soil and grow in the sunshine. In fact, even those of us who have seen those sprouts a thousand times, still often marvel at the miracle of new growth. Not only is gardening a satisfying past time that gives us plenty of fresh air and sunshine, it also keeps us moving and active, it gets us in touch with our earth, and best of all, if successful, our garden can feed us well into and through the winter.

There are few dangers to gardening. The old slapstick vaudeville joke about the man stepping on the rake and having the long handle slap him in the face is funny and familiar to us all; and it might have even happened to one or two of us. But gardening is a relatively safe hobby. Perhaps the biggest concern with gardening other than mosquito bites and sunburn, is back pain. Many of us, after spending a long winter indoors, are itching to get out into the spring sunshine. We enthusiastically rake the debris left over from the winter, we till the soil, and we sit crouched, picking through the garden from last year, making sure the soil is right, there are no left-over weeds, and adding lime and other necessary additives. Yet, if we are not careful, the flurry of new activity will put us right to bed. Following are a few suggestions about how to avoid back pain when gardening.

First and foremost, try to do some sort of aerobic exercise several times each week. This will keep your body in tip-top shape and you will feel better. Just as important, always stretch after exercising. This will keep your back muscles strong and pliable, and they will be less likely to tighten or become injured while you are gardening. Likewise, always stretch after you have spent time in the garden. Never stretch before you begin or when you are cold. Always make sure your muscles are warm before you stretch. If you spend more than an hour in the garden, it is good to stop and stretch often.

Second, in the same vein, take breaks often. Similar to sitting at a computer all day, sitting crouched over in the garden, pulling weeds or planting seeds, can take its toll. If you are going to be crouched in one position for more than fifteen minutes, stand up and stretch your back, arms, and neck every fifteen minutes. You need not spend a lot of time doing this, just a minute or two will keep you limber.

Third, be careful when standing or lifting. After sitting crouched or squatting for a time, stand up slowly. If you pop right up, your back muscles may not keep up and you could strain something. More importantly, always be careful about how you lift heavy items. Never lean over to pick up a bag of potting soil or a potted plant. Always been your knees and let your legs take the burden of the lift. If you have to carry something heavy for some distance, consider using a wheel barrow or wagon.

Fourth, use all your muscles. When raking or tilling, many of us use only one hand, meaning, we will rake primarily with our right hand. Later that night, when only our right side hurts, it is because we haven't spread out the work load. Even if it feels uncomfortable, switch hands often and let both sides of your body do the tough gardening work.

In the end, be wise. If you have spent several hours in the garden and your back feels stiff or sore, stop for the day or take an extended break. Even if rain is in the forecast for tomorrow, you don't want to over do it. If you push yourself to hard and suffer an injury, you won't be out in the garden the next time the sun shines, and that would be a tragedy!

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