At this time of year, gardening can be an enjoyable pursuit that gets you active and outdoors.
Unfortunately, gardening can also cause problems for your lower back. Bending too far forward for prolonged periods of time combined with repetitive movements put pressure on your intervertebral discs (the soft pads between your vertebrae) and the spine itself.
In addition, lifting heavy bags of mulch, fertilizer or topsoil can further stress our backs. Being aware of the potential for damage is the first step towards reconciliation. Fixing it involves observing a few simple lifting mechanics as well as performing some core-strengthening exercises to build your body's infrastructure.
First the lifting mechanics.
When possible, push or pull heavy objects, rather than lift them.
If given a choice, push rather than pull. When lifting, keep a slight arch in the lower back, bend with the knees, straddle and test the load before lifting. Keep the load close to the body, tighten your abdominals and lift with the legs.
Lower a load using the same principles in reverse. When carrying a load, keep it midline and close to the body. Divide the load if possible, carrying half in each arm/hand. Alternate the load from one side of the body to the other when it cannot be divided.
If possible, use a backpack with straps to carry a light to moderate load. Use a stool or ladder when working with arms above head level. Keep tools within easy reach. Where possible, choose tools with extended handles.
Try not to keep arms extended out in front or out to the side for long periods of time without rest. Don't hyperextend your neck.
Strengthening your core will help prevent back pain and degenerative disc problems from becoming worse. Two exercises, the dead bug and the plank are a good place to start to strengthen your core.
Lie flat on your back with both arms reaching straight toward the ceiling.
Lift your feet off the ground so your legs are bent at a 90-degree angle.
With control, lower one arm and the opposite leg away from each other and toward the floor.
Lower your limbs as far as you can while keeping the lower back on the ground. Fight the impulse to arch your back by tightening your abs, pressing your stomach down to anchor your lower back to the floor.
Exhale as you return your arm and leg to the starting position with the same controlled movement.
Repeat with the other arm and leg, then return to the center again.
While on all fours, put your elbows and forearms on a comfortable mat or carpeted floor.
Extend your legs back behind you and push up into a plank, creating a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles. Keep your neck in neutral alignment by looking at your hands.
Hold this position without moving. Keep your hips level and square to the ground and don't let your back arch.
With a combination of good lifting mechanics and restorative core-building exercises, you can garden while keeping your lower back healthy and safe.