Enjoy gardening without back pain

Learn how to stretch, move and lift for pain-free yard work.

After feeling cooped up during our long winters, I’m eager to enjoy the great outdoors. Once the snow is gone, it’s time to tackle the lawn, trim the hedges and get the blooms ready. But let’s be smart about it; we can’t just jump into an activity we haven’t done for several months.

A long day in the yard raking, mowing, planting and weeding can take a toll on your body, especially your back. Around 80 percent of adults will experience back pain at some point in their lives, and it’s common among people age 60 and older. Let’s look at ways we can enjoy a great hobby like gardening – and do it pain-free.

Tips for gardening pain-free

Start gardening slowly and build up your endurance. Pace yourself and don’t try to do everything in one day. As you get older, your endurance and exercise capacity might not be what they used to. Trying to do too much will put you at greater risk of injury and strain.

The more you can strengthen the muscles that support your spine, the more likely you can garden pain-free. Follow these key tips to avoid back pain:

  1. Warm up your muscles. Build strength and flexibility for five to 10 minutes before you begin gardening. Stretch your lower back, arms and legs. Walk around your yard or neighborhood. A warm-up can improve your range of motion and prevent cramping, stiffness and soreness.
  2. Get in the right position. Taking care of our yards and gardens means we need to stand up, kneel or sit. All that up and down is hard on the joints and muscles. Try these ideas for the best posture:
    • When you’re working at ground level, kneel on just one knee and have one leg up. Or sit on the ground with your legs to the side. It may be easier if you sit on a pad or a small stool. Just make sure you sit straight so your spine isn’t rounded or arched. These positions decrease stress on your lower back.
    • Avoid extending your reach too far. When you’re raking, shuffle your feet and use small strokes. Do small sections of your lawn or garden bed at a time. That way you won’t get tired too quickly. When mowing, keep the handle close to your body and stay upright.
  3. Move properly. Move your feet and hips in the same direction as your upper body instead of keeping your feet planted and twisting at the spine. If you have to twist, engage your core by pulling your belly button in toward your spine as you move. Avoid throwing or heaving anything – it’s much easier to strain and injure your back with these sudden movements.
  4. Use good lifting habits. Squat down and stand back up by bending at your knees, not your waist. Keep heavy things close to your body. Use a cart or wheelbarrow to haul heavy materials instead of carrying them in your arms.
  5. Take breaks. It helps to rotate your tasks so you don’t put too much stress on one part of your body. Instead of spending an hour on one task, spend 20 minutes raking, then 20 minutes weeding, then 20 minutes pruning. Also, take a five to 10 minute break in between each task. Stretch your arms, legs and back again. Sit down with your favorite beverage to stay hydrated and truly give your body a rest.
  6. Avoid work over your head. Working with your arms up for long periods of time can put more strain on your heart than working at eye or waist level. Ask for help with tasks like trimming trees and hedges.

Be extra careful to avoid falls

Remember that there’s always a risk of falling when you’re active outdoors. Keep these tips in mind to avoid a fall or to make sure you don’t get dizzy or lightheaded:

  • Avoid activities that make you off balance
  • Don’t extend your reach too far
  • Get up slowly when you’ve been kneeling or sitting for a long time. If you change your position too quickly, your blood pressure could drop (especially if you take medicine for high blood pressure)
  • Wear shoes that fit well and are comfortable

What happens if back pain flares up?

Oops. You over did it and have back pain. Here are some easy self-care tips to get you back to pain-free living.

  1. Take care of those sore muscles. As soon as you start to feel pain, stop working. Stand up straight. Stretch your muscles. Ice any spots that are sore; this helps loosen muscles and ease pain. Take Tylenol for pain relief – it’s safe and very effective for sore muscles. Be sure to consult your doctor before taking medications.
  2. Don’t rest too long. Take it easy with any activities you have to do. But it’s helpful if you can keep doing simple stretches to avoid stiff muscles. Slowly get back to your normal exercising and daily activities. If the pain isn’t improving or gets worse, keep lightening your routine. It can take a week or as long as a month to get back to your normal routine.
  3. See a doctor if things get worse. If the pain is bad, it may be a good idea to see your doctor. You can get immediate relief and tips to manage your back pain long-term. The good news is that Medicare covers medically necessary care you get with back specialists, like chiropractic, orthopedic specialists and physical therapy.
HealthPartners members: Find a doctor or clinic that can help you with your back pain. HealthPartners Medicare plans have many health care provider options. You can be confident you’ll get the care you need to recover and get back into the garden.

Check out these articles for more information about managing everyday back pain:

Smart gardening has rewards!

Spring, summer and fall have plenty of gardening opportunities. Before you gather the tools, mulch and flowers make sure you get yourself physically ready for the labor. Keep doing regular stretching exercises year-round to have strong muscles ready for your next backyard adventure. Taking extra steps can keep you safe and enjoying the outdoors.