Who can resist the allure of fresh air and sunshine, the feel of dirt and the promise of delicious, home-grown fruits and vegetables? It's a wonderful thing to grow your own food. But gardening is an inherently challenging activity for people who have any kind of weakness in the back, so it's important to take precautions while in the garden.
Part of the reason gardening causes back problems is that for most people it's a weekend-warrior activity. You go for months without gardening, and then you end up doing a physically demanding activity for an extended period of time that your body isn't used to doing. In particular, gardening involves a lot of forward bending, which loads a tremendous amount of pressure on the discs and joints. The Oklahoma State University Web site does a good job of explaining this phenomenon.
Think of your back as a lever. With the fulcrum in the center of the lever, it takes only 10 pounds of pressure to lift a 10-pound object. However, if you shift the fulcrum to the side, it takes much more force to lift the same object.
Your waist acts like the fulcrum in a lever system, and it is not centered. In fact, it operates on a 10-to-1 ratio. Lifting a 10-pound object actually puts 100 pounds of pressure on your lower back. When you add in the 105 pounds of the average human upper torso, lifting a 10-pound object puts 1,150 pounds of pressure on your lower back.
Not only do gardeners spend a lot of time bent forward, they're often doing it with something attached to their hands, like a shovel with a mound of dirt, which makes the lever even longer and puts even more pressure on the lower back.
Tips for pain-free gardening
1. Be careful of forward bending for too long
Don't bend over in an uncontrolled position for hours and hours. Either kneel, sit on a little stool or figure out what the best posture position is for you.
2. Take frequent breaks
Every 30 minutes, get up and stretch your back. Even short breaks can prevent back injuries.
3. Do backward-bending exercises
To counteract all that forward bending, do some backward-bending exercises.
4. Hire out the hard stuff
If you need to do some digging, and digging is really hard on your back, hire someone to dig for an hour for you.
5. Quit when your back feels tired
If you feel your back starting to get tired or painful, stop. Injuries often happen when the back is tired.
Remember, a lot of chronic back problems start with either minor tears in the discs or strains to the ligaments, and those things can easily occur while gardening.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't garden. Gardening gives you an opportunity to connect to the earth in a very profound and deep way. So do it, but take care of yourself while you're out there.