Gardening Safety

Garden season has already started. It’s time to bend, stretch and dig.

Gardening is a great way to enjoy the outdoors, but it should always be done safely, according to George M. Fatula, DPT, Director Outpatient Rehabilitation Services, Penn Highlands DuBois. Overexertion is a leading cause for non-fatal injuries in the United States, according to the National Safety Council.

There are plenty of ways to get the work done without having a summer or even a lifetime of pain. “Pacing yourself and moving properly can help make you more productive in the end,” Mark J. Hoffman, MPT, Service Line Director of Rehabilitation Services and Occupational Health for Penn Highlands Healthcare, said.

The first thing to do – just like for any other physical activity – is get limber. Take a short walk and stretch. “It may not be a sporting event, but your muscles are still going to get a workout,” Hoffman said.

Do some simple stretches:

~Pull one knee toward your chest to stretch the back and leg;
~Try some partial squats with your feet apart at shoulder width to warm up the legs;
~Reach above your head with your hands locked to stretch arms and shoulders;
~Do backbends by placing your hands in the small of your back and gently bend backwards while keeping your knees straight.

After a good warm up, be sure you have the right tools. Use rakes and shovels with handles that are tall enough that you don’t have to extend your body further than it needs to go. Use garden tools with larger, padded or curved handles. They are less strenuous to use over longer periods. Do you have a cart, wagon or wheelbarrow? Use it to move items from one place in the yard to another, especially heavy items.

Now that you are ready to start, “keep good body mechanics in mind,” Hoffman said.

If you are lifting or shoveling, always keep your back as straight as possible. Use your hips and legs and not your back to move. Bend your knees and don’t use your back to lift.

To pick up an object, squat with your feet spread wide apart. Keep your head more upright instead of looking down. This will help keep your back from bending forward too much. Again, bend your knees and don’t use your back to lift.

“You need to use your head more than your back when performing activities,” Fatula said. “The leg muscles are much stronger than the back and were designed to handle heavier loads. Also, avoid repetitive twisting as much as possible to avoid injury to the spine or damage over time.”

If you are raking, place one foot in front of the other to stand. Switch feet positions after 10 minutes or better, yet, change tasks.

Changing positions helps avoid the strain on your joints from repetitive tasks such as shoveling, weeding, digging/planting and kneeling.

Pulling weeds? “Stand up after 10 minutes or so, stretch your back and arms, and change the position you're in,” Hoffman said. Rake a small areas then stop to pick up the debris and move it out of the area. Break up sitting tasks with walking tasks.

If doing low-to-the-ground work, kneel on a towel or pad, or sit. Kneeling or sitting to work is always better than standing and bending at the waist. Don’t squat on the back of your heals, either. That puts a lot of strain on the back, knees and ankles. Tendonitis, inflammation of the tendons, can flare up and may take a long time to go away if you do not give your body time to recover or continue to perform these aggravating activities.

Know your limits. Don’t be afraid to slow your pace or take a break if your body needs one. A short break may save hours or days of pain.

If you do happen to notice a pain, stop what you are doing and re-evaluate how you are working. If the pain is too much to bear, stop.

If you do hurt later, apply ice to an affected joint for about 15 minutes twice a day for 48 hours after an injury. If it is a tight muscle or stiff joint, try heat for 15-20 minutes twice a day. Acetaminophen and ibuprofen (Tylenol and Advil) may help with pain and swelling. If the symptoms last two weeks, contact your physician.

If you do it right, outdoor activities can be great exercise and your yard will be a pleasure and not a pain.

Remember that active people are less likely than inactive people to be obese or have high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, coronary artery disease, stroke, depression, colon cancer and premature death. The benefits are many.

And if you have any questions about working right, contact any of the staff at The Rehabilitation Centers of Penn Highlands Healthcare. Go to for more information.