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Get Fit to Garden—and Break Ground, NOT Your Back!
Q. Hi Mike! Have you ever considered the topic of being fit for gardening? As you perhaps know, many gardeners hurt themselves by moving incorrectly or trying to do something strenuous without thinking about what it takes to perform the task safely, even something as simple as weeding. Enthusiasm in the garden can sometimes lead people to neglect the care of their most important tool—their body! Warm Regards,
    ---Lisa Byrne; Certified Pilates Instructor in Philadelphia
A. Thank you for shaking the cobwebs off this tired old brain of mine! When I received your email, I wrote back to say that, yes, I had worked up a complete "Get Fit to Garden" regimen with my old friend Phil Dunphy, DPT (Doctor of Physical Therapy) that included warm ups and proper positioning for all the basic garden tasks.

Then I went to our massive archive of answers at the Your Bet Your Garden section of Gardens Alive to send you a copy—and couldn't find it. So I asked GA, and they said I hadn't written anything on that subject in the—gulp!— five years the feature has been appearing at their website!

Luckily, the time is perfect for me to correct that omission and prevent some injuries this season! So here's Dr. Phil's ten tips on how 'to break ground without breaking your back'! (Maybe we should call him the OTHER Dr. Phil…)
  1. Don't try to build Rome in one afternoon!
    Many of us go out and overdo things on the first nice day, and then we don't have any more nice days that summer. Don't do strenuous stuff for more than a half hour your first day back on the job. Increase that by 15-minute increments every day, and you'll get all your gardening work accomplished before you know it.

  2. Warm up before you work out.
    This does not mean stretching. Although many runners swear by it, numerous studies have shown that stretching cold muscles increases the risk of injury. I repeat: People who stretch before exercising have a greater risk of injury than people who don't stretch at all. (Stretching after you're finished can be highly beneficial, however.) The best way to warm up is to simply walk around at a normal pace with your back nice and straight for five to fifteen minutes. You can also get your blood flowing and loosen up your muscles by taking a nice warm shower before you go out.

  3. Keep the work close to your body.
    Don't reach out to do something or move something; you're turning gravity into your enemy. Instead, move closer to the work, where leverage is your friend.

  4. Keep the work in front of you.
    Turning and twisting puts tremendous pressure on your lower back. Instead, turn your body around so that you're directly facing what you need to do.

  5. NEVER reach AND twist!
    Sometimes, garden layout may force you to work at arm's length or face your work a little off to the side, but NEVER do both. Even a light object can damage your back if your arms are extended and your body is twisted. Don't BEND and twist either. Which brings us to…

  6. Bend correctly.
    Don't do any work (or 'limbering up,' or…) that involves bending until you're been out of bed for an hour. After that, when work requires that you bend, flex your knees to transfer the bulk of your weight to your nice strong thighs as opposed to your weak, weak back. But don't squat, either. If the work is that far down, kneel instead—preferably using kneepads or one of those padded garden kneelers. Keep your back straight when you're down there and while you're on your way down and back up.

  7. Get DOWN with your funky self!
    Once you're down at ground level, it can be very tempting to stay put and start reaching again. Don't. Instead, get up, move to the next area and work there. It may sound a little tedious, but if you don't, you might be out of action for the next week. If getting up is especially difficult, don't be afraid to crawl over to the next bed. Your neighbors already think you're crazy, so lean into it. (Just don't wear white pants!)

  8. Stay loose while you're down.
    Deliberately tighten and release your stomach muscles every couple of minutes while you're in a kneeling position. This will strengthen your back muscles (stomach ones too!). Every five minutes, "act like a cat": Put both hands on the ground and gently work your back by arching and rolling it a few times in smooth, gentle motions. This will keep you loose and prevent your back from locking up on you.

  9. Use shovel sense.
    Don't dig straight-legged; your back has to do all the work. Instead, keep your knees slightly bent. That way, your legs—probably the strongest part of your body—will help carry the load. And always keep the shovel close to your body.

  10. Dump correctly!
    When you've got a full shovel, don't turn and throw. Instead, pick up your front foot, point it in the direction you want the dirt to go, pivot on your back foot until you're facing that direction and then dispose of the dirt. It'll take maybe an extra five minutes over a couple hours of work—and keep you out of the emergency room or chiropractor's office.

    Dr. Phil Dunphy is a Physical Therapist in Red Bank, New Jersey. Contact info: DPTPhil@Monmouth.com. Website: http://www.physicaltherapy-nj.com/

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