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Gardening without the growing pains
Friday 24 March 2017

As springtime arrives, the days grow longer and hopefully the weather begins to get a little warmer, many of us will be keen to get out into the garden for the first time since the autumn and make a start on preparing the garden for summer. However, according to the Chartered Institute of Physiotherapists, every year more than 400,000 people in the UK need medical attention after injuring themselves in the garden. 

Elaine Parker, Physiotherapy Manager at Duchy Hospital says “Most people do not consider gardening an exercise, but it can be hard work after a long winter break, and few of us are physically prepared for it.”  Most gardening activities are fairly rigorous and gardeners can sustain similar injuries to sports people. With the arrival of springtime, physios tend to see an increase in people with pulled muscles aches and pains strains caused by overzealous gardening activities.  “Quite often these could have been avoided by doing a few simple stretches to warm up your muscles before you start gardening and ensuring a gradual return to gardening to build up your strength and stamina again.”

Another common gardening complaint is an aching back after spending hours stooping over flower beds to weed and plant. Elaine says: 'This can be avoided by getting down close to the work - use a kneeling mat or special knee-pads so that you are not straining yourself. And when you’re digging, take the strain with your legs rather than your back. Don't stay in the same position for too long as it puts a strain on your whole body. Either do something which requires a different working position, or take a break and have a small rest.”

Keeping fit will also help to minimise the risk of injuries. "Through exercise, like Pilates, people strengthen their diaphragm, pelvic floor, lower back and abdominal muscles," says Elaine. "All these areas help to protect the back from strain during gardening. Increased stamina also prevents muscle fatigue and consequential strain on the spine.

The type of tools you use can also be very important. Make sure that the tools you buy are suitable for you. Make sure they are the right height / length for you if you are especially tall to avoid unnecessary stooping and also consider the weight of your tools. A spade might be easy enough to lift in the shop, but will it be too heavy when it has a load of earth on it?' 

Top tips for pain-free gardening

Stretching: do back exercises before and after gardening to mobilise and strengthen the spine.

Weeding and planting: gripping, twisting and pulling can inflame tendons. Stop to massage wrists and lower arms. Lock hands with palms facing out and stretch them over the head, behind the back and out in front. Sustained bending can cause muscle spasm in the lower back. Move close in or use a long-handled implement. Cushion the knees with pads. Take a break or change activity every 20 minutes.

Lifting: keep your back straight, bend your knees, look ahead and hug the load close to your body.Test the weight of something by lifting one corner - if it's heavy, roll it or push it. Divide a heavy load and make several trips using a wheelbarrow or trolley.

Digging and shovelling: stand with feet shoulder-width apart for stability. Use a long-handled spade. Let your legs support you, not your back. Shovel small amounts.

Pulling up shrubs: crouch close to the plant and hold it firmly, feet shoulder-width apart. Hold your head up, bend your knees keeping the back straight. Lean away from the object as you pull.

Sweeping, hoeing and hedging: stick to a forward and backwards action when sweeping and hoeing. Use small, controlled movements when trimming hedges; don't overreach.

Equipment: choose lightweight implements and think about your posture. When using a hover mower, for example, don't swing from the waist; turn your whole body in line with the mower. Don't overload wheelbarrows. If in doubt when starting petrol-powered equipment, ask for help.

Remember that gardening can be great exercise and helps to keep many of us fit and active.