O My Blooming Back

Tips for taking the back pain out of gardening.

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Working Smart

Of course, a good warm-up is just the beginning of working wisely when it comes to your back. The biggest faux pas gardeners make is staying in one position too long, says Miriam Levenson, creator of The Effortless Gardening Program (www.effortlessgardening.com) and a practitioner of Feldenkreis, a form of movement education. "It's okay to weed for several hours at a tune but not in the same position," she says. "You can bend over, kneel down, sit in a chair, pull with one hand, then the other hand. You can kneel on one knee and then the other. Each position will change the shape of your back and the muscles you use."

Of course, shifting tasks accomplishes the same thing. Weed for a while, then plant a few bulbs, then shift to a bit of pruning.

It's also wise to pause every 20 minutes or so. Lundeen suggests repeating some warm-up exercises, doing hip circles, a few waist twists, and finally bending backwards a bit. Levenson suggests lying down on the ground to look at the sky. "What adult ever does this?" she says. "A bit of sky and a bit of wiggling around to loosen up the joints is a great revitalizer." And drink lots of water. Tight muscles build up toxins, and water helps clear those out, which in turn lessens tightness.

The other waterloo for gardeners with aching backs is lifting. We lift mulch, topsoil, trees, stones, great forkfuls of dirt, pots, planters, and would probably lift our driveways and house foundations if we could. Probably the smartest way past this is to hire a burly high-school kid to haul the heavy stuff, says Robert Berghage, PhD, associate professor of horticulture at Penn State University. Although many landscape gardeners also suggest wearing a back belt, studies to date don't report added protection. In fact, belts may persuade some gardening zealots like me to lift more than we should. Belts also shift the work to smaller, weaker muscles, upping the risk of injury.

Without a burly youth, we're left to our own devices. If you must lift, says Levenson, ask yourself first, "Am I about to do this in a way that will feel good or bad after I'm done?" You want your core muscles — your strong stomach muscles — underneath the object you're lifting and smack up against it. That may mean squatting and then lifting with your strong leg muscles instead of your back — advice from Byrd's great grandmother, an avid gardener who tilled and mowed her into her late 80s.

You can also plan a garden friendlier to your back. Consider converting some beds into raised ones about 18 to 24 inches high (essentially a wooden box on the surface filled in with soil). And plant flowers or even vegetables like tomatoes and peppers in large containers (that some iron-backed person lugs into place for you). "You don't have to bend over as far, "says Berghage. "And it's easier to manage weeds." If you do dig a new bed, never make it wider than you can reach without straining -- about four to six feet.

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