10 Best Tips for Preventing and Reducing Knee and Back Pain while Gardening
The Most Important Gardening Tool Is You!
Preventing and managing knee problems and back pain are elements of gardening as important as selecting and growing seeds and plants. Just as much care and attention need to be paid to your body as to the design and maintenance of your garden. Think of your body as another gardening tool, like a pair of clippers or a trowel; if you let these tools rust because of neglect or allow them to become damaged through misuse, then they cannot perform their functions in the garden. No matter how strong and fit you may be, a stiff and sore knee or a back strain will pay you a visit sooner or later if you are not mindful of the stresses gardening activities can put on muscles and joints.
Here are ten best tips for preventing and reducing the back and knee aches and pains associated with gardening.
Tips for Preventing Pain While Gardening
- Stretch and warm up.
- Know the limits of what you can lift and carry.
- Lift from your legs, not your back.
- Take your time.
- Vary tasks in the garden.
- Design your garden for comfort—be creative by using alternative planting methods.
- Use a potting bench or garden bench.
- Protect your knees from injury and stress with kneelers, knee pads, and kneeling cushions.
- Protect your back from injury and stress by using telescoping and long-handled tools.
- Relieve pain and strain with ice packs.
Tip 1: Stretch and Warm Up
If a morning workout or walk is part of your daily routine, then you are ahead of the game when asking your body to perform gardening activities.If you do exercise regularly, a stretch and a warm-up before gardening are smart precautions to take; if exercise is not part of your daily routine, these stretches are absolutely necessary to safeguard your knees and back.
Knees: The muscles that protect your knees are at the front and back of your thighs, the quadriceps and the hamstrings. The video to the right demonstrates two simple stretches, one for each. You can do these stretches standing up; if you choose to stand, make sure you support yourself by holding onto a wall or heavy piece of furniture.
Back: Why we humans evolved to be upright, walking on legs, is beyond me. The spine has so much work to do and such a heavy load to bear. I don’t know about you, but I’m most comfortable lying down or on all fours, arching or curling my back to relieve stress. I suffered from chronic lower back pain from the time I was in my late teens until my mid-forties. How I finally achieved a more-or-less pain-free later life is another story, but when it comes to gardening, I follow the advice in this video. I stretch before, during, and after.
Easy Hamstring and Quadriceps Stretches
Easy Stretches for Loosening Your Back
Tip 2: Know the Limits of What You Can Lift and Carry
I know that a 40-pound bag of mulch is beyond my ability to lift and carry. I can shove or pull it around, but that’s about it. I have a handy cart that I can unload a bag of mulch or stones or sand onto from the tail of my SUV and then wheel it to where it needs to go in the garden.
If you don’t have a cart or wheelbarrow that you can shove a heavy bag onto, then open up the bag and take the time to shovel or trowel out a bucket-full of material that you can carry with ease. Lightening the load this way and making frequent trips back and forth will take more time but it will also keep you in optimum condition.
Let a Cart or Wheelbarrow Do the Heavy Work
The Right Way to Lift a Heavy Object
Tip 3: Lift From Your Legs, Not Your Back
Even if you are picking up a trowel that landed in the dirt, use your knees and legs to bring your hands to the ground instead of bending over from the waist with legs straight. Bending from the knees allows you to keep your center of gravity, making it less likely that you will pitch face-forward into the garden. You can also think about it this way if you like: your butt looks a lot better and reveals a lot less of what you’d rather people didn’t see when you bend from the knees.
When it comes to lifting, you want the energy coming from your legs, not from your back. I’m reminded of a debilitating injury I suffered in my early twenties. Being young and immortal, I attempted to lift one end of a 200-pound desk by bending over from the waist and lifting. Four months later, after weeks of physical therapy, pain killers, and limited mobility, I was finally able to return to work.
Tip 4: Take Your Time
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Unless you have helpers to do your bidding, your garden will have to take only as much time as you can safely give it on your own. Slow down. Enjoy the start of gardening activities with a cup of coffee or tea, smell the roses, and listen to the birds.Take breaks often, and when you do, admire the progress you've made so far without making yourself crazy thinking about the zillions of things you haven’t been able to accomplish. Lean back in a comfortable patio chair, put your feet up, and have that second cup of tea or coffee. Before resuming your gardening activities, stretch out your lower back, and also your hamstrings and quadriceps if you feel the need.
Hanging Baskets Help You Avoid Stooping and Bending
Tip 5: Vary Tasks in the Garden
Perform different tasks alternately to avoid over-stressing one group of muscles. For example, if you've been on your knees weeding for a half-hour, make your next activity one that allows you to stand. Pruning taller shrubs or tending to hanging baskets will give your leg and back muscles a welcome respite.
Tip 6: Design Your Garden for Comfort—Be Creative by Using Alternative Planting Methods
It's been only in recent years that I’ve started to pay close attention to how I want things arranged in my garden to suit my physical comfort. After too many years of having back problems, and now having knees that spend more time yelling at me than whispering, I see my garden differently. Where once I would design my garden for optimum beauty and productivity, my first design consideration now is ease of access. Here are a few design ideas for preventing and reducing knee and back pain in the garden.
- Hanging baskets (no stooping or bending with these)
- Large barrel planters (the taller the better)
- Window boxes (these can be mounted on patio railings as well as underneath windows)
- Table planters
- Raised beds (24 inches tall, by 4 feet wide, by however long is desirable)
- Climbing plants (many flowers, peas, beans, and squashes come in climbing varieties; look for opportune places in your garden to let plants grow up to your comfort level)
A Smart Alternative Planting Method: Raised Beds
Get Plants and Containers Off the Ground When Potting
Tip 7: Use a Potting Bench or Garden Bench
Because I make use of large containers and hanging baskets more than I have in the past, a potting bench became essential.
When working with plant containers, use a potting bench or garden bench to hold containers at a height that allows you to stand or sit comfortably to clean pots, plant them, and prune their contents.
Don’t be squatting, kneeling, or bending from the waist if you don't have to!
Cushion Your Knees
Tip 8: Protect Your Knees from Injury and Stress with Kneelers, Knee Pads, and Kneeling Cushions
When we’re kids, we think nothing of being on our knees, crashing to the ground on them from standing, using them to loft soccer balls, and counting on them to get us from sitting on the floor to standing without using our arms. But later, and not so much later, knees don’t seem to be the structural friends they once were.
If your garden is not designed for keeping you off your knees, then there are many ways to cushion and protect your knees while you work.
- Garden kneeler seats consist of padded cushions attached to a metal or plastic frame which also has hand-holds. They allow you to go from kneeling to standing with the assistance of your upper body. Most garden kneelers also convert into a handy, padded bench for sitting.
- Kneeling cushions or kneeling pads are thickly padded mats that you place on the ground and then kneel on.
- Knee pads are devices you strap to each knee so that when you kneel, your knees are cushioned. Brick layers, carpet installers, and football players use these to protect the knee from impact.
Remember to weed while kneeling, not by standing and bending at the waist, and keep your back straight.
Unusual but Practical Long-Handled Gardening Tools
Tip 9: Protect Your Back from Injury and Stress by Using Telescoping and Long-Handled Tools
Use long-handled tools to avoid kneeling, bending, or squatting. Long-handled tools include rakes, shovels, cultivators, hoes, edgers, grass sheers, weed pullers, bulb planters, and trowels. Telescoping tools are especially handy when you have tasks to do at both ground level and in raised beds. With a simple twist, these tools can be shortened from their fully extended length to about 20 inches or less.
An Effective and Economical Homemade Ice Pack
Tip 10: Relieve Pain and Strain with Ice Packs
Sooner or later, knees and back are going to be uncomfortable after overdoing it in the garden. After gardening, ease stiff and sore knees and back with a 15-minute ice pack.
Most of the information in this article comes from my own experience throughout many years of gardening, but you can find authoritative, supporting information by following the resource links below. Only you know what your physical conditions and limitations are, so if you have any questions or doubts about your own aches and pains, please see your medical provider.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.