Gardening is a great way to keep active, save money on produce, and beautify your outdoor space. But it’s not without its risks: Awkward positions and new or repetitive movements canmake gardening uncomfortable for many, and even lead to injuries. If the first signs of spring have sprung the desire to work your green thumb, follow these tips to garden comfortably season after season.
Prepare your garden plot
Remove stones, debris, and other loose objects from the garden area before you start working. Not only will your plants have more room to grow, but you’ll also avoid tripping hazards.
Invest in the right tools
A garden stool or a kneeling pad helps relieve pressure from your spine and joints, lessening the risk of back and knee pain—the most common gardening-related complaints.
Long-handled tools with easy-to-grip handles also enable you to extend your reach while sitting or working in your garden while standing. Look for the Arthritis Foundation’s Ease of Use logo, which signifies products that have been independently tested by experts and proven to make life easier for people who have arthritis and other physical limitations.
Already have lots of tools? You can buy attachments to lengthen existing tools, too.
Maintain your tools
Make sure your gardening equipment is in good working order to avoid injury. Sharpen any dull blades or edges on tools like shears, trowels, and hoes so they’re easier to use—but do so carefully!
Wipe dirt off tools when you’re done for the day. Store them in a dry place to prevent rusting.
Ease into it
If you’re new to gardening, it’s easy to overdo it on day one and wake up feeling stiff and sore. Easy-to-grow plants are especially good for beginners since you don’t have to commit to daily gardening tasks your first year out.
Start by investing 20 to 30 minutes and adding more time as your body becomes more used to the various positions and movements.
Practice good form
Poor form and posture can cause muscle and tendon injuries. Focus on allowing larger and stronger muscle groups to do most of the work. For instance, rather than lifting a heavy bucket or basket with your wrist muscles, use your elbows. Keep your arms close to your body, which helps reduce strain on muscles.
Don’t twist your body when shoveling dirt aside. Instead, get up and move from spot to spot as you garden. Always keep the shovel close to your body, your knees slightly bent, and scoop in a forwardmotion.
Protect Your Skin When Gardening Outdoors
In the same way you need to take care to protect your muscles and joints when gardening, you also need to protect your skin from the sun and bug bites. Sunscreen and insect repellent are absolute musts.
Break it up
Vary your tasks to avoid staying in one position too long and overworking particular parts of the body. For example, alternate weeding, digging, and pruning with some watering or harvesting.
Repetition and overuse can lead to conditions like tendinitis and carpal tunnel syndrome, according to the American Society of Hand Therapists, and taking care to switch it up can help you stave off these injuries.
Use good lifting technique
If you’ll be carrying heavy items like bags of soil or mulch, remember to lift with your legs, not your back. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, bend at the knees, and lift with your leg muscles as you return to a standing position.
Ask for help from a neighbor, a family member, or a gardening buddy for especially heavy or awkward items or those that need to be transported up or down a slope. For plants that you plan to move, use lightweight plastic pots.
The ground isn’t the only place your garden can grow. A flower box, pots, or a raised bed can reduce the stress on your body by eliminating stooping. A vertical garden, wall planters, or hanging baskets also enable you to enjoy gardening while avoiding bending and kneeling, which can be especially challenging for those with joint problems like arthritis.
Take it all in
Rest your body, enjoy a tall glass of water, and admire your hard work. You’ve earned it!
A note about lead in soil
Trace amounts of lead are naturally present in soil and are nothing to worry about. But lead contamination can result from peeling of lead-based paint (now banned) from the exterior of older homes and from emissions from old vehicles that once used leaded gasoline (especially if you live near a busy road). Lead was phased out of gasoline over recent decades but persists in soil. Though lead levels vary widely depending on local conditions, testing by the Food Project several years ago found that 82 percent of 125 home gardens in three Massachusetts neighborhoods had levels higher than state and EPA limits.
If you think your soil may be contaminated, contact your local USDA cooperative extension office, which will provide low-cost testing and recommendations based on the results. If you use a private lab, make sure it is accredited. You may want to test more than one area. Don’t use home testing kits; they may not be accurate. It’s an especially good idea to have your soil tested if children are participating in gardening activities or playing in the yard.
First published April 2019. Updated May 2020. A version of this article first appeared in the April 2019 issue of UC Berkeley Health After 50.
Also see Gardening for Good Health.
Published May 12, 2020