I remember it vividly. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in May, and I was loading my van with many flats of annuals and veggies. As I was lifting in the seventh or eighth flat, I heard a friendly voice coming alongside me. “I hope you have help with all that planting,” the lady, who appeared to be in her 50’s, said to me. “That looks like so much work. And I just don’t have the back and knees for it anymore.”

I smiled and her and said something pleasant in response, but I remember my 20-something self wondering what she was talking about. This won’t be hard work, I thought. I enjoy it.

Gardening has always been therapeutic for me. Each spring, in fact, I can’t wait to get my hands in the dirt. Now, however, a couple of decades later, I do know a little more about what that lady was talking about. In fact, after a long day of planting and weeding, I can get stiff and sore.

To perform common gardening chores, we use the muscles of the back, shoulders, legs, thighs and wrists. Since the lower back muscles support the entire body, lower back pain is common after any strenuous physical activity, including gardening. Gardening also involves bending and twisting movements that can affect the neck.

However, I have found that when I follow some simple precautions, gardening does not have to be a painful experience. Here are some tips to help you do common gardening chores in ways that are safe for your body.

Lifting

Don’t get off on the wrong foot by improperly lifting heavy bags of soil or heavy planters and pots. The first tip is to use common sense. Enlist someone to help you carry the heavy stuff or use a wheelbarrow or a dolly to transport heavy items.

When lifting heavy items, it’s important to protect your back by using strength from your hips and legs. Follow these steps:

  • Spread your feet wide apart for a wide base of support
  • Stand close to the object you are lifting
  • Keeping your back straight, bend at your knees, not at your waist
  • Tighten the muscles in your stomach as you lift
  • Hold the object close to your body without twisting
  • Slowly lift, using the muscles in your hips and knees
  • As you stand, avoid bending forward

To set the object down, reverse the procedure, again using the muscles in your knees and hips rather than your back.

Digging

You can minimize your risk for back strain and muscle pain, by taking some precautions when you shovel dirt or gravel. The main tip is to keep your body aligned with the shovel rather than twisting and turning your body. Lean into the shovel with your body weight rather than just with your arms.

Avoid twisting your body to release the load from your shovel. Walk around in a small circle in a smooth motion to release the dirt rather than twisting and turning your body and thereby putting stress and strain on your back, shoulders and neck.

Also align your body with a rake. Pull the rake towards your body instead of pulling it off to one side. Alternate sides frequently as you work.

Weeding

Weeding can take a toll on your back. The main preventative strategy here is to avoid bending over as much as possible. For extended weeding, you can keep pressure off your hips or knees by sitting on a stool or bucket as you work.

However, you can put strain on your back even from the seated position. Try to keep your back straight while you lean forward to pull weeds. As with other tasks, move as close to the job as possible, and face your work without twisting and turning.

Pushing a mower or a wheelbarrow

Use good body mechanics by using your hip and leg muscles to do the heavy work when pushing. Adjust the height or your mower handles so that they feel comfortable for your height. Try to keep your back straight with your arms close to the sides of the body with hands near hips. Slightly lower handles will offer you better leverage. Aim to keep your wrists in a neutral position.

As you work, avoid twisting and turning your back. When you move around trees or shrubs, pivot your feet, aiming to keep your hips, shoulders and feet moving in the same direction.

Here are some other general tips and precautions:

  • Warm up. Just like with any physical activity, it is important to start slowly with gardening tasks. Do some easy movements and gentle tasks first to warm up your muscles. Consider taking a brisk five-minute walk to get your heart rate up.
  • Minimize repetitive motions. If you are doing something that requires a lot of wrist movement, for instance, take a break and do a different task that is easy on the wrists for a while.
  • Take breaks. Take a brief break every 15 to 30 minutes to recharge. If you have been sitting, stand up and stretch. If you have been standing, sit down and relax. Get out of the sun and have a cool drink of water.
  • Protect your knees. Use a knee cushion or knee pads when you must kneel for extended periods of time. As you kneel, avoid stretching out your torso to reach something. Move your pad closer to the area where you need to work.
  • Listen to your body. Pay attention to signs your body gives you. Mild muscle soreness is expected after a full day of gardening. If your soreness lasts more than a few days or if your symptoms are more severe, however, you may need to consult your doctor.