I didn't realize how much I relied on my back for farm and garden work until I tore a disc in a farm accident, along with damaging my hip alignment. It was the end of May, and my first thought when the doctor told me to avoid any lifting or strenuous activity for the next few months was "I've just lost the entire growing season."
I was right. I didn't do much gardening that summer, and when I was healed enough to get back to work I found I had to be extremely careful. As a young person, this was a daunting lesson, but I quickly discovered that there are lots of farmers and gardeners with back pain who manage to still do what they love. Here are their secrets:
1. Core Strength
The best way to protect your back is a strong core. A daily abdominal workout routine goes a long way towards a healthy back. Your workout doesn't have to be intense, and there are hundreds of free workout routines on the internet to choose from. A strong core also comes with other benefits, including better posture and more endurance for gardening tasks.
2. Body Mechanics
As tired as I am of hearing the phrase, "always bend and lift with your legs," it is good advice. Proper body mechanics while gardening prevents back injuries and strain. It does require thinking about your actions. Take a moment to consider a strenuous task and determine the best way to accomplish it instead of jumping straight in.
A lot can be accomplished with the right amount of leverage. Moving round bales, for instance, is easy with a simple lever made from a 2x4 and a cinder block. Adding length to a tool handle like a wrench makes it easy to loosen a stubborn bolt. All you need is a sturdy piece of piping to slip over the handle, and, of course, WD-40.
4. Attainable Goals
Set attainable goals for yourself. The only thing worse than being limited by back pain is hurting yourself further, taking you out of the garden for days or even weeks. If you have a serious back injury or suffer from chronic back pain, your garden goals are going to need to accommodate that. Instead of planting a 1/4 acre of potatoes by hand, consider cutting back or having a friend help you. You could also try growing your potatoes in barrels.
5. Stretch Breaks
I can easily spend a few hours on my knees transplanting or weeding without giving a thought to my body, something I regret the minute I stand up. Stretch breaks are important no matter what your hobby, but they are especially crucial for gardeners. Take a moment to stretch out your back and legs. This limbers you up, preventing and soothing muscle and back pain and increasing your efficiency. Plus it feels really good!
6. Ergonomic Set-Up
Since new backs weren't available at the hardware store, I had to alter my routine to accommodate my back. Despite my attachment to my farm's set-up, I forced myself to examine my garden and figure out where I could make things easier on my back.
Where possible, I switched to raised beds for my vegetables and containers for my herbs, limiting the distance I had to bend down to work from. I switched to using long-handled tools, especially for weeding, and tried to keep up on the weeds so that I didn't need to bend down to pull out stubborn dandelions. I made sure my tools were the appropriate weight and length for both me and the job, and when they weren't I broke down and bought a more appropriate tool.
The most important change I made was to storage. I downsized my storage bins and put weight limits on them for myself. While I previously prided myself on my ability to tote 50, 60, and 70 pound bins of root vegetables around, now I limited the bins to 35 pounds. I also no longer stacked heavy bins higher than my waist. While this took up more space, I don't regret it for a minute.
7. Animal Handling Systems
Dealing with livestock with a bad back is not easy, but unfortunately, many people who deal with livestock develop back pain over time. It comes with the turf. Luckily, there are ways to handle livestock that don't put as much stress on your body. Chutes and pens take the work out of catching your herds, and whenever possible work on your animals from the outside of a chute or on a stand to avoid bearing their weight.
8. Stack the Deck
I like to do my own lifting even with a bad back. The secret to my success is simple - stacking. If I am unloading hay, I use other bales as staging areas instead of lifting bales higher than my waist. If I am storing vegetables or rearranging a cooler, I stack bins so that I only have to lift things a short distance at a time.
The flip side of this is slightly more costly. Purchasing large, bulk items is cheaper. Buying smaller bags of feed or potting soil costs more. They are also lighter and easier to transport. Sometimes you have to swallow the cost or accept help.
9. Listen To Your Body
You are the best judge of your own strength. When your body starts to twinge, take a break to stretch or call it a day. Pushing through back pain is not like pushing through the burn of a workout. There is nothing to gain, only pain. Rest when your body demands it and pace yourself.
10. Ask For Help
This was the hardest thing for me to learn. It took throwing my back out a few more times before I understood that there is no shame in asking for help. What was shameful was confessing that I had knowingly pushed myself past my limits and lost valuable time in my garden.