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Posture in Gardening

In the UK, gardening is a hugely popular hobby for those of all ages. There’s nothing quite like the sense of accomplishment you feel seeing something beautiful you have nurtured growing and blooming, or the satisfaction of eating your own tasty home-grown produce. Whether you are the “potter about” type, or a daily all-weather green fingered gardener, you need to be sure you are doing it in a way that limits any damage to your muscles and joints. Our independent Occupational Therapist, Julie Jennings Dip COT HCPC has given us the advice and top tips below on how you can best achieve this.

When carrying out activities like gardening, there is no such thing as a “perfect posture”, given the range of actions necessary and the positions needed to get the job done. The key to avoiding damage whilst gardening is to avoid remaining in positions that cause discomfort or put unnecessary strain on your body, whilst remembering good “general” posture advice.

For a range of gardening activities, such as weeding, tending to hanging baskets, planting (pots and shrubs) and raking leaves etc., here are some general ergonomic tips to apply:

  •  Just as with any physical activity, you need to warm your body up, so start off with smaller, lighter jobs before moving on to the bigger ones.
  • Wear clothes that don’t restrict your movements.
  • Make sure your footwear is appropriate for the job.
  • Vary your posture regularly to minimise any impact on one particular area.
  • Minimise the amount of times you bend your back or use large knee bends.
  • Take regular breaks – spend no longer than 20-30 minutes on one action before resting or alternating your task.
  • Remember to drink plenty of water – dehydrated muscles are more prone to injury than well hydrated ones.
  • Get help from others if you can – two people moving heavy plant pots or lifting bags of compost will be safer than trying to do it by yourself.
  • Face the direction you are working – many injuries are caused by unnecessary twisting actions.
  • Get close to the action – when pruning, weeding and planting, minimise the distance you are reaching as much as possible.
  • Plan ahead – do you have all the tools and equipment you need to do the job close to hand; struggling on with inadequate facilities is a sure way to cause an injury.
  • Remember when lifting anything heavy – hold items close to you as lifting with outstretched arms will increase the pressures throughout your shoulders and back.
  • Where possible – break tasks down into smaller, manageable activities to “lessen the load”.

When digging, the risk areas are your shoulders and lower back, so remember to:

  • Avoid sustained repetitive movements and sudden excessive force or jarring actions – such as hitting hard ground or a rock.
  • Try to avoid over bending, which exacerbates the pressure on lower back muscles.
  • Avoid erratic “large” movements – these are often more harmful than regular small movements.

When using a Wheelbarrow:

  • Avoid over-stretching; this increases the forces being put through largely unprotected back muscles.
  • Try to use a wheelbarrow with cushioned grips – it will be more slip-resistant and provide a more comfortable grip.
  • Don’t overladen the barrow – several lighter trips will be safer than carrying one heavy load.
  • Make sure when you pick up and lower the barrow you do so correctly, using your stronger thigh muscles to reduce pressure through back and shoulders.

Here’s a reminder of some good lifting techniques to use whenever picking up a heavier load:

  • Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, feet facing object
  • Keeping shoulders back, head up and back straight
  • Make sure feet remain flat on the ground
  • Bend from the knees (not back) – knees will turn out
  • Place a firm grip onto the object
  • Stand up – driving from the thighs and core stomach muscles
  • Pay as much attention to setting the object down as when picking it up – a reverse of the above

Also – look at the tools you are using:

  • Lightweight, long handled gardening tools will help avoid stretching and over bending; longer handles also generate more leverage with less force.
  • Having tools with a “cushioned grip” will make sustained activities more comfortable, lead to less compensation on other joints, provide slip resistance and reduce grip force.
  • Use a grip extender to make gripping tools easier and protect your wrist joints.
  • Use a wheeled garden trolley to help you move items as needed.
  • Use a wheeled plant pot “dolly” to move heavy tubs and pots.
  • Use a retractable hanging basket hook to make maintenance of these easier.
  • Use a wheeled garden stool and/or garden kneeler to make sustained actions more comfortable.
  • Think about creating raised beds and planters to reduce excessive bending, enabling you to work at a more comfortable height.

Remember – over-time, regular exposure to bad postures can increase your risk of arthritis or exacerbate already weakened muscles and joints leading to increased pain, stiffness and fatigue.

If you experience prolonged symptoms of any of the following whilst carrying out an activity you need to stop and rest – they may be symptoms of a bigger problem:

  • Tingling or numbness
  • Swelling of a joint
  • Decreased ability to move
  • Decreased grip strength
  • Sore muscles
  • Changes in skin colour in hands and fingers
  • Pain from movement, pressure, vibration or exposure to cold

Next time you go out into your garden, review your gardening habits and see if you can apply the above tips into your activities. Regular activity like gardening is a great form of exercise, regardless of age or health conditions, when done right.

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