O My Blooming Back

Tips for taking the back pain out of gardening.

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I'm happy this time of year. I begin hauling compost and topsoil, shoveling, stooping, planting. But before long I am leaning at a 45-degree angle like a tree bracing against the wind. My back will not forgive an idle season as graciously as my flowerbeds do. It spasms and pinches until I know my afternoon's pleasure is done for: only an ice pack and propped feet will revive me.

I'm not alone. According to a Gallup poll of 2,000 adults, nearly half suffer from back pain — and half of those do so as a result of gardening. The pain is not surprising. In the spring rush of enthusiasm, we stay at our tasks for hours bent over like the letter "N." We try to lift loads that would daunt Samson. We twist, kneel, stand, and overreach.

"All that puts pressure on the discs in our back and stresses our back muscles," says Sharon J. Gibbs, M.D., who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Texas Back Institute in Plano, Texas. The result inevitably is fatigue, pain and even injury.

So what are avid gardeners to do? Well, the wise warm up like athletes preseason. And shift from task to task, accepting--as athletes do--that they can't do the same drill all afternoon. And finally, they treat themselves to the right equipment. Sure, at first, it feels pricey. But so is a chiropractor.

Getting Primed

Like soil, bodies have to warm up to work. "Don't start the season off cold," says horticulturist Bob Nuss, PhD, professor emeritus at Pennsylvania State University in University Park. "A month before resuming your gardening, start walking or doing calisthenics. Ease in so you're not straining your muscles." Adding stomach crunches or Pilates exercises at least three times a week is a great idea as well, says yoga instructor Sudha Carolyn Lundeen, CYT, RN, who teaches a better back program at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts. Stronger stomach muscles can lessen the stress on your back.

A warm-up before every gardening session also makes sense. Landscape designer Jon Feldman, owner of G.biloba Garden Environments in Nyack, New York, learned this while working on a job with several Japanese tile makers. Every morning before they got started, the tile makers spent 15 minutes doing tai chi, a Chinese practice of slow gentle movements and stretches. "I never joined them," says Feldman. "But I turned what they did into my stretching before I garden. I stretch the long muscles in my legs and back and warm up my shoulders. I want to waken my body and let it know I'm about to put it to the test."

John Byrd, president of John Byrd Garden Design in Charlotte, North Carolina, agrees: "Before I get out in the garden I walk briskly around the block to get my heart pumping. And then I stand on one foot and stretch the other behind me like runners do before running."

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