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19 Jul 2024 22:00
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  •   Home > News > International

    There are ways to garden with a bad back. Here's what a physiotherapist recommends

    Physiotherapist Dr Karen Chan says warming up, taking breaks and learning to be ambidextrous in the garden can help protect your body and manage injuries you may already have.

    A decade ago, while travelling alone on an overnight train from Romania to Moldova, I suffered a back injury so severe I could barely walk for two months.

    It was a herniated disc — the consequence of lugging a too-heavy backpack while wearing slightly heeled boots — and it's since given out badly twice more.

    These days I live with constant low-level pain and the risk of flare-ups. But I'm determined not to let this chronic injury rob me of something that gives me great joy: permaculture gardening.

    If you're managing an injury, or keen to avoid one in the garden, Tarntanya/Adelaide physiotherapist Dr Karen Chan shares these tips.

    Warm up with planks, lunges and squats

    Dr Chan says warming up your body can dramatically reduce injury risk, especially on cool days. Even a quick brisk walk around the block or your garden can help.

    I personally swear by a solid one- to two-minute plank before heading out for a big day in the veggie patch. I imagine it tells my muscles: "We're about to do some hard work, time to switch on."

    Dr Chan agrees, saying planks are an excellent injury-prevention exercise that strengthens and engages core muscles.

    Spending five to 10 minutes on repetitions of lunges or seated squats is also useful, she says, particularly if you're planning an arduous day in the garden. Both help tone and activate your legs and core, which supports and protects your back.

    And any upper limb exercises that use a rowing action will strengthen your upper back muscles, shoulders and arms, while also improving joint stability and helping you move more efficiently.

    Move mindfully and avoid too much of one thing

    Once out in the garden, pace yourself and break up tasks into 30-minute chunks, so you're never doing too much of one repetitive movement.

    "It's so easy when you're enjoying something to get stuck doing one monotonous behaviour or pattern for a long time," Dr Chan says. "But this can have a lot of physical repercussions — which are usually only noticeable once your body has cooled down."

    She says the most harmful combo of movements is bending, twisting and lifting all at once.

    I discovered this myself last month when I tweaked my back while hauling a 10-kilogram bag of animal feed in one arm and bending to open my chicken coop gate with the other. "This kind of movement results in a lot of back pain or acute strains," Dr Chan says.

    Instead, aim for symmetry in your actions – and even learn to be ambidextrous in garden work.

    "Most of us only dig one way and then we get sore on that same side. It's best to try to even things out so you're using both sides of your body," Dr Chan says.

    Cool down with stretching and inversions

    Much of our time spent gardening involves bending forward, so it's important to reverse it up when you're done.

    Dr Chan recommends standing extensions. Bend your trunk backward at the waist as far as you can go without pain, hands placed on the small of your back and knees straight forward. Hold for a few seconds, stand up straight and then repeat five to 10 times.

    You can also achieve a similar stretch while lying on the floor, with the yoga poses Upward-Facing Dog or Cobra.

    And stay hydrated post-gardening, Dr Chan says, because fluids help muscles and joints regenerate, meaning you'll recover more quickly.

    Prevention is better than cure

    While my back pain seems here to stay, I don't want to injure myself further.

    So, when I built four low, raised garden beds in my permaculture food garden, I deliberately designed them narrower than usual — at just 60cm wide. Now I can easily access the middle of each bed without bending forward too much, an action which aggravates my back.

    Likewise, my one large waist-height raised bed is useful to prevent bending. And I'm slowly swapping over to long-handled tools to avoid slouching when working soil at ground level.

    Dr Chan says aids such as kneeling mats, mini stools and even trolleys or wheelbarrows for carrying heavy items can help injured folks continue gardening without pain.

    And good shoes make a huge difference. "Proper shoe wear has a positive effect on your kinetic chain – the interconnected system of muscles, joints, and bones that work together to produce movement," she says. "It's all about a good solid sole with enough cushioning to absorb impact."

    If you do hurt yourself, seek professional help sooner rather than later, so you have the best chance of getting back on your feet and out into your beautiful garden quickly.

    This is general information only. For detailed personal advice, you should see a qualified medical practitioner who knows your medical history.

    Koren Helbig is a sustainable city living educator who practices permaculture and grows organic food in the backyard of her small urban Tarntanya/Adelaide home.


    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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