When I look at the economic news: the housing crisis, the high cost of groceries or the possibility that artificial intelligence makes my professional skills obsolete, I often come back to the same thought: I should start growing my own vegetables.
Financial savings and fresh produce aside, research shows that gardening and spending time in nature have been shown to do just that reduce stress, depression and anxiety. For people like me who live in cities where community gardens are popular, there is evidence that gardening helps create a sense of community with neighbors.
And, of course, regular, moderate-intensity planting, weeding, and pruning exercise can benefit overall health.
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It feels like a win everywhere. But there’s a problem. Like about 20% of adults in the US, I live with chronic pain, including many with back pain. Mine is in the pelvis and legs and can make repetitive bending or squatting very uncomfortable.
Luckily for me, this spring I saw Rebecca Stephenson, a clinical physical therapy specialist at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts. She has a passion for plants – in her garden she grows flowers such as sedums, coleus, peonies and herbs – and she has many ideas on how to modify gardening activities to prevent pain.
She says gardening can benefit people with chronic pain. « You’re exercising, breathing outdoors in nature, and getting good lung expansion. You’re also using your arms and legs in a coordinated way. » Luckily she says, « there is a way to garden so you don’t hurt yourself and end up in pain afterwards. »
Here are some of Stephenson’s tips for getting your hands in the dirt, without getting hurt.
Take it easy
Like any physical activity, Stephenson says you can build endurance for gardening, step by step. Do not overdo it. « I’ve happened to go out for four or five hours and it’s going to cost me two weeks. » But her professional background helps keep her grounded. « I come at it from underneath. Instead of going over your limit, I try to come under it, » she says.
« What I really recommend is to take your garden plan and see how you could break it up into smaller pieces and be very reasonable about the amount of time you’re physically able to do that. So it could be half an hour, it could be 15 minutes , it might be an hour, and then take a break, change your body position, do some stretching, » she says.
Embrace ‘functional reinforcement’
« Sometimes people wear a back brace just for gardening, and that gives them a little more reminder to use their abdominal muscles, » Stephenson says. It’s worth a try, even if it feels awkward, she says. « It’s not like your grandmother where you wear a belt all day. You only wear it for an hour. »
Sit down and stand up gracefully
Stephenson suggests using a stadium chair, of those that lean on the ground and provide back support, to work in a seated position. Spread your legs in a V shape, with knees straight or slightly bent, and work on the patch directly in front of you. You can also tuck one leg in with the foot resting against the inside of the opposite thigh.
And, when it’s time to get up from a seated work position, follow these steps:
- Rotate your torso to one side and place both hands on the floor
- Use your hands to push yourself into a tabletop position, with both hands and both knees on the floor
- Lift your torso up until it’s perpendicular to the ground and plant one foot on the ground in front of you
- Lift the other leg to stand.
Try « the quadruped »
For more range of motion, kneel with both knees on a foam pad. Then, placing both hands on the ground, step forward into a tabletop position, with your back straight and your arms and legs perpendicular to the ground. You can then work with your dominant hand while supporting your weight with your non-dominant hand on the ground.
Get on your knees
Kneel with one knee on a pad and the foot of the opposite leg on the ground (as if you were proposing marriage or protesting the national anthem at a soccer game). Use your front leg to brace your elbow as you work. This is a good position to use a small shovel or trowel, and you can work with both hands on the tool.
Consider raised beds
Instead of going down to the ground, you can bring the earth onto you with a raised bed that reaches hip height. The bed should be about twice as wide as your arm’s length, Stephenson says. Engage your abdominal muscles as you lean forward against the wall of the bed, which provides support for your pelvis as your upper body does the gardening. You can even place one foot on a stool for added support.
Stephenson particularly recommends raised beds for the elderly. « A senior citizen might have one in his backyard, in his condo, on his back porch. He might have his lettuce, he might have spinach, a lot of herbs that might change the way they’re cooking to make it a little more exciting, » she He says. Aside from building a raised bed, vegetables can also be grown in planters that clip over a railing.
Switch sides and dominant hand regularly
To minimize the damage of repetitive, off-balance movements like digging or raking, Stephenson suggests switching arms regularly, say every five minutes, taking turns using your non-dominant hand on top of the shovel or rake. With the rake in particular, he suggests placing the rake in front of you and pulling it toward you symmetrically.
Do you have tips for gardening with chronic pain? Send them to us firstname.lastname@example.org you may appear in a future edition of the NPR health news.
Andrea Muraskin writes the NPR Health newsletter and is a freelance writer and audio producer based in Boston.