Gardening: a Pain in the Back...Neck...Shoulder...

Welcome to The Physiotherapy Corner! A blog brought to you by Holywood Pilates and Physiotherapy from our little corner of Holywood, Sullivan Place. I am Erin, a Chartered Physiotherapist and it is my hope that reading this blog will inspire and entertain you, give you something to think about, and provide you with some tips and tricks for your health and well-being.


Gardening: a Pain in the Back...Neck...Shoulder...

The better weather has arrived and Monty Don is back on Gardener's World so that can only mean one thing: it is time to get back outside, get your hands in the soil, and start sowing your seeds. Now, before you claim that you don't like gardening and tune out, please read on, as this blog is also directed at everyone who goes outside in the Spring and does a "big clean-up" to get ready for the Summer. The Spring clean-up often includes moving patio furniture, raking, cleaning, painting, weeding, shovelling, wheelbarrowing, and it may even involve the chainsaw, hammer, and of course, the power-hose.

If gardening is your thing, you know that early Spring means there is a host of gardening jobs to get started on. This can involve trimming, clipping, weeding, transplanting, sowing, moving pots and plants, dividing, lugging around soil, digging, and countless hours spent bent over or on your knees. Of course, we all want and expect to get these jobs done over the course of one weekend. Sound familiar?

Alternatively, you may not even have a garden, but there is something about the Spring that makes you want clear out all of your wardrobes, strip that old chest of drawers, or re-paint the kitchen cupboards all in one day. It may; therefore, not surprise you to hear that Spring-time can get very busy for a physiotherapist. With that in mind, please have a read through my top gardening tips to help you remain happy and healthy during your gardening and Spring cleaning quests.

Top Gardening Tips

1. Keep Active all Year

In my opinion, this is the most important thing that you can do for your health, and some of the benefits of physical activity were discussed in my last blog. Being active all year also has the added benefit of keeping your body in good condition so that you are able to tackle the garden, but avoid the sprains, strains, and aches and pains that comes from a flourish of overactivity that your body isn't used to. If you regularly lift heavy weights, then lifting heavy bags of compost and carrying them around the garden probably isn't going to be much of an issue for you. If you never lift heavy weights and expect to pull off a personal best trying to move a 15st plant pot around, that is when you may run into trouble, and pay for it later that evening or next day. Likewise, if you avoid bending forward in daily life, you aren't going to feel great after spending 20 minutes bent over weeding. The more you prepare you body for the postures and strength required for gardening the better. Lifting weights, regularly carrying the groceries, participating in various sports, and completing body weight exercises, whether that is callisthenics or Pilates, will all help to keep you in tip top shape.

2. Warm-up

There is a reason why athletes warm-up before a match, why runners walk for 10 minutes before starting a run (you all do this right?), and why we begin our workout classes with a warm-up. Warming-up gets the body ready to do hard work, it raises the body temperature and gets the muscle primed with oxygenated blood, making the muscles perform faster and more efficiently which can help to prevent injury. Thinking about this from a physiological point of view, it suddenly makes a lot more sense to warm-up before you go outside, grab the heavy hedge-trimmer and cut the hedge for the next 1 to 2 hours. Alternatively, maybe you are just planning on doing a half hour of weeding, but I would still recommend a quick warm-up to get the body loosened up and ready to work. You could go for a quick 10 minute stroll, or alternatively complete a few quick exercises. See below for some quick and easy ways to warm up the lower back.

3. Pacing

What do I mean by pacing? Pacing means appropriately planning out an activity, including breaks, to enable you to carryout that activity without the unwanted side-effects. In other words, it means taking your time. In order to pace yourself you must recognise and know your own limits. For example, let's say Erin can weed her flowerbed for 20 minutes with no issues, but if Erin weeds 30 minutes her back pain flares and annoys her for the next two days. Erin now knows that she needs to stop weeding at 20 minutes and take a break, and she has discovered through pacing her weeding that if she rests for 10 minutes she can actually weed another 20 minutes without her pain flaring. Handy knowledge to have eh? Get to know your limits, time them, and adjust accordingly.

4. Set Realistic Goals

Setting realistic goals works very well in tandem with pacing. Decide on a job that you want to complete and give yourself a reasonable amount of time to accomplish that job. Let's take painting the fence as an example. Is it realistic to paint the entire fence in one day? Ask yourself, how often in daily life do you spend with one arm outstretched, waving it up and down for up to 3-4 hours at a time? Likely not that often, and I think we could all agree that if you did do that, you would probably expect it to irritate your shoulder or at least cause some muscle soreness and stiffness the next day. Despite this logical rationale, why do we think we can paint the entire fence without the same consequences? A gentler and smarter way to work would be to paint one or two of the fence panels at a time. Slow and steady wins the race.

5. Get the Right Tools

Make sure that you have the right tools for the job, preferably cool ones with your name on them. Investing in the correct tools for the job can save you a lot of heartache, trouble, and more importantly, backache! Make sure the tools that you invest in are well maintained and kept in good condition, as this will lengthen the life of the tools themselves and ensure they remain fit for purpose, which can help prevent injury and make the job easier. If you have trouble bending down, are a wheelchair user, or have arthritic hands you may wish to invest in gardening tools that makes it easier for you to tend to and continue to enjoy your garden.

6. Change It Up

If you read tip number 3 and immediately decided that pacing isn't for you, perhaps I can tempt you into using another tip, which is to change up the job that you are doing, or change how you are doing the job. This is to avoid remaining in any one posture for too long, and to avoid repetitive strain injuries. For example, I needed to move a pile of rocks and spent 2 hours on the weekend shovelling stones. Using my Physiotherapist brain I knew that it would be important for me to switch sides that I was shovelling from with each wheelbarrow, to ensure that I wasn't over loading my arms or back on one side of my body. Additionally, I actually used my trip to the dumping zone with the wheelbarrow as a "change of activity", and then again "changed activity" when I switched to the rake in order to spread the stones. Each change put my body into a different posture and required the use of different muscles, which meant I wasn't spending longer than 10 minutes at a time doing any one activity. I added in a few post-digging stretches and suffered no ill effects that evening or the next day, other than a few bruises where I bashed into the wheelbarrow.

7. Make the Job Easier

Before tackling a job in the garden, stop and have a think whether or not you can make the job easier. Is there someone you can share the task with? For example, if you cut the grass, can your kids rake up the clippings? Is there a piece of equipment that can help? My trusty red trolley works a treat and means I can lug as many of my pots around, and obsess over where I place them, without having to ask anyone for help. If you suffer from arthritis and are unable to kneel down, having a high table or bench to pot your plants on can be really helpful. Another option may be to make a raised bed, or purchase a perching stool. Heavy bags of compost can be difficult to drag around the garden, so consider getting in a bulk order so that you can take only what you need from the pile.

8. Stay safe

Last, but not least, stay safe! Make sure that you are wearing appropriate shoes when you are outside working as this is definitely not the time to break out the heels, wedges, or slippers. Flat shoes, trainers, or wellies should do the trick in most cases. If you are building anything or doing heavy work you may want to consider steel-toed boots. Make sure you stay well hydrated with water when you are working outside and invest in a nice metal water bottle so that you don't have to worry about broken glass. Wear gloves to protect your hands from blisters, thorns, cuts and scraps. Wear your sunscreen and wear a hat.

Gardening and Mental Health

If you have never given gardening a go before you may consider doing so for the sake of your mental health. Gardening enjoyed a major resurgence during the Covid-19 pandemic. Sales of plants soared, and the number of people watching Gardener's World trippled, as people looked for a way to help them cope with their increased stress. People who have been gardening for years already know the mental health benefits of caring for plants and being outside in nature, and current research is beginning to prove they are right. Some research has shown that chemicals that are emitted by plants and trees can reduce our stress levels, improve our sleep, reduced blood pressure, boost our mood, and lower stress hormones. It is now thought that being in nature can cause the body to produce more natural killer cells - the cells that make up a very important part of our immune system. The NHS is even starting to prescribe Nature as a lifestyle treatment. Intrigued? Have a look at these articles from the RHS and Dr Chatterjee. BBC Gardener's world also has several Podcasts on the topic if you are interested in learning more.

Gardening at Holywood Pilates and Physiotherapy

Of course gardening doesn't have to be on a large scale and doesn't need to take up a huge amount of your time or money. To prove the point, Holywood Pilates and Physiotherapy got in on the gardening action this week and we are pretty pleased with the results. Those of you who have been to the clinic may have noticed our little project and we have had a few lovely comments. Even Jilla, the less active, but stoic member of the team is enjoying the view.

More Gardening Pictures:

If you don't already garden, I hope that you consider trying it as it has great benefits for your physical and mental health. Thank-you for taking the time to read the blog and I will be back in a few weeks with another instalment.


If an injury or disability is preventing you from gardening, consider attending Physiotherapy with us to see how we can help.

Disclaimer: Please note that the opinions expressed above are those of the author and always remember to seek medical advice before starting any new exercise programme.

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