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Working smart keeps body happy

Kneeler/ benches are used as a kneeler when the handles point up and a small seat when flipped around. (Susan Mulvihill)
Kneeler/ benches are used as a kneeler when the handles point up and a small seat when flipped around. (Susan Mulvihill)

Gardening benefits us in many ways. We get to reap delicious fruits and vegetables, it brings us peace and it’s a great way to burn some calories.

Unfortunately, it can be challenging for those who have ongoing physical ailments such as back or neck pain, stiff knees and cranky shoulders.

As someone who has been on both the giving and receiving end of physical therapy for several years, I’m often asked for tips on how to garden without discomfort. Here are some suggestions:

• Stretch those muscles first. Every morning, no matter what activity I’m going to engage in, I always stretch my back, hips, and the muscles around other joints so they’re moving fluidly. Stretching should be done gently and steadily, preferably for 30 seconds per stretch.

• Engage your core. What’s that? Simply put, it’s your abdominal muscles and the muscles of your trunk, all of which protect your back. As we get older, it’s easy to let everything hang out without realizing that makes us prone to back injuries. Start tightening your tummy muscles with all activities: getting in and out of bed, in and out of the car, up and down from the ground, and while carrying things. Before you know it, it’ll become second nature, and you’re on your way to a stronger back as well as a more svelte figure.

• Align your spine. While working on gardening tasks like pruning, sawing, digging and carrying, try not to look to the side – a good way to tweak your neck. Twisting while carrying objects is a quick way to injure disks in your spine. And by all means, avoid locking your knees and bending at the waist to work.

• Pace yourself. It’s likely all of your garden projects can’t be done in a day’s time. For example, if you have a lot of hand-pruning to do, work at it in short shifts. The repetitive motion of closing and opening pruners for a prolonged period can cause tendonitis faster than you can say “ouch.” Listen to your body and don’t overdo.

• Keep your loads light. Whether using a wheelbarrow or a bucket, carry small amounts of materials rather than as much as the container will hold. If you have lifting restrictions from a back injury, be diligent about observing them. Better yet, ask for help. Don’t forget to hold objects as closely to your body as possible to reduce back strain. If you have neck issues, remember that you engage your neck muscles whenever lifting and carrying objects so go easy.

• Be kind to your knees and hips. If you’re like me, it’s continually getting up and down that wears you out. One of my favorite tools is a kneeler/bench, which you can find in garden centers. When the handles point upward, it’s a kneeler; you use the handles to push yourself up and lower yourself down, which really saves the hip joints. When you flip it around so the handles point downward, it’s a small bench. Cranky knees will appreciate gel-filled kneelers.

• Don’t work overhead. To reduce neck and/or shoulder strain, don’t work above the level of your shoulders. Use a long-handled tool or a ladder to put yourself on the level of your project. If possible, recruit some help.

Enjoy your time in your garden this season.

Susan Mulvihill is co-author, with Pat Munts, of Northwest Gardener’s Handbook. Contact her at or find her online at
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