Nurture Your Spine and Your Garden

Spring has sprung! It’s time for all the gardeners, who have been anxiously waiting to get outside, to get their hands in the dirt and do their thing!  This may include pulling weeds, planting, pruning, and watering. Ah, it’s such a rejuvenating feeling to transform the winter landscape to one bursting with color, bees and butterflies!  However, that pride can come with a price – a sore back! Tending a garden requires stooping, squatting, kneeling and hunching that put our spines in vulnerable positions and can result in strain on the muscles, ligaments and joints.  While the meditative quality of gardening can be relaxing, it also distracts our attention from our body position. It’s amazing how much time can pass as we toil in the dirt, stooped and hunched, nurturing our vegetable garden or flowerbed.  It is usually when we stand up and step back to admire our creation that we begin to notice that our back is sore. We have long winters here in Vermont and when the snow finally melts and the trees turn green, we tend to become “weekend-warrior” gardeners.  After spending the cold months skiing, snowshoeing, or in front of the fireplace reading, our spines aren’t prepared for the sudden demands of finishing five days worth of gardening tasks in just two.  This is much like an athlete who trains too much, too soon while gardeners can “tend” too much and too soon. Here are a few tips to help nurture your spine as you nurture your garden: 1.  Balance your posture. Take frequent breaks to reverse your posture.  It is impossible to avoid bending forward while gardening but just be sure to “reverse” that position and stretch your spine backwards, too. If you are squatting or hunched, stand up, place your hands on your hips and extend your spine backwards as your hips move forward. Also, interlace your fingers behind your back, slide your shoulder blades together, and if possible, lift your hands off your back to open your chest.  Whatever position you are in, stretch frequently in the opposite direction.
  1. Change positions frequently.  Much like you need to practice “reverse posturing”, changing positions frequently can take the strain off your muscles and joints that accumulates from supporting the same position for a long period of time.  If you are kneeling, frequently switch to half kneeling and alternate which knee is down.  If you are squatting, switch to kneeling. For those that tend to get lost in the meditative aspects of their gardening, I recommend setting at timer as a reminder to switch positions every 15 minutes.
  1. Use your props.  A kneeler, a stand, or even an upside down flowerpot can provide alternate positions that keep your knees happy and your spine healthy.
  1. Keep your work close.  Be sure to position yourself in such a way that your garden tending is within an easy reach.  This will help keep you from relying on your spine to bend forward as you attempt to work beyond an arm’s reach.  In order to do so, you will frequently have to get up and re-position yourself to your new workspace.
  1. Lift with your legs.  Whether you are lifting the wheelbarrow, a bag of mulch, or a tray of flowers, proper lifting mechanics are still important to protect your spine. Even if the loads are not heavy, repetitively lifting a small load with a bent spine and straight legs makes your spine just as vulnerable to injury.
  1. Realistic expectations. Be honest with yourself and listen to your body when deciding how many gardening tasks you plan to complete in one day. This is especially important if you already have a chronic spine condition.
  1. Prepare your body. Below is a short yoga sequence that you can use to help your body prepare for or recover from a day in the garden.
Concentration, discipline, and patience are essential to cultivating a flourishing and thriving garden.  Cultivating a healthy spine at the same time involves those very same qualities. It is crucial to pay attention to your body position, resolve to interrupt unhealthy movement patterns, and respect your body’s limitations. Nurture your spine as you nurture your garden.