With the warmer weather comes the itch to get outside and play in the dirt, but gardening and yard work can be a challenge when you’ve got a pain condition. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy gardening or yard work if you have a pain condition. By taking a few precautions and keeping an eye out for pain-friendly tools and products, you can still have just as much fun as ever even when gardening with pain.
Benefits of gardening for chronic pain patients
Whether you tend to a small backyard vegetable patch or have a cornucopia of flowers flourishing under your watchful eye, gardening can provide numerous benefits for people with chronic pain.
Although gardening postures of bending over or leaning on the knees can lead to or exacerbate pain, simple fixes for these issues abound. With care, gardening can do more than produce beautiful flora or food to eat—it can also heal your body and feed your soul.
1. Gardening offers low-impact exercise
While outside enjoying the sunshine, digging holes and pulling weeds, adults receive enough exercise to stay in shape, according to researchers at Kansas State University.
Thinking of gardening as exercise is especially important for older adults, particularly those with chronic pain, who may avoid more vigorous forms of exercise and consequently not stay active enough. All that handiwork also strengthens the hand muscles, keeping them nimble, note researchers.
2. Nurturing a garden reduces stress and anxiety
Weeding and planting helps people forget their troubles and focus instead on the present moment, which reduces stress and anxiety, according to the Pain Society of Oregon.
Reduced stress can in turn lessen the body’s inflammatory response, which can help to alleviate pain. As a bonus, calm feelings improve quality of life.
3. Garden-fresh produce provides abundant nutrients
Growing your own squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, and other delicious vegetables results in healthy additions for home-cooked cuisine. Produce straight from the garden is often more flavorful than supermarket produce, which has traveled for days to arrive at the store and is often picked before fully ripening.
If you’re trying to include more fruits and vegetables into your diet, growing your own allows you to enjoy all the benefits of gardening, nutritional and beyond.
How to stay safe while gardening with pain
If you’re ready to jump into the garden, there are just a few tips you should practice to avoid any flare-ups of pain. These tips can help you prevent painful nights so you have more days out in the sun.
1. Practice warm-ups and cool-downs
Gardening and yard work are an excellent source of exercise. Like any type of exercise, though, it’s important to warm up beforehand and cool down afterwards. A good warm-up can increase your range of motion and ease stress on the joints, which means less pain while you’re enjoying your garden. The American Heart Association also emphasizes the importance of warming up before any type of exercise, stating:
“A good warm-up dilates your blood vessels, ensuring that your muscles are well supplied with oxygen. It also raises your muscles’ temperature for optimal flexibility and efficiency. By slowly raising your heart rate, the warm-up also minimizes stress on your heart.”
Cooling down after exercise allows your body to return to normal slowly, and the slower transition can help you reduce the risk of after-exercise pain.
To warm up or cool down, you can do some stretches (dynamic or moving stretches can be good for you) or a short five to ten minute slow walk.
2. Stay mindful of how you move your body
You can also reduce pain while gardening or doing yard work by being mindful of how you’re holding or using your body.
Try to keep your body in a comfortable position. If you have to bend over, make sure you’re directly over whatever you’re reaching for. Don’t bend over and then stretch and twist every direction to pull weeds without ever moving your feet.
When you’re mowing, stand up straight. Leaning forward can put extra strain on your back. If you’re raking up leaves or clippings, switch sides with the rake. This will distribute the strain of the repetitive motions, which can seriously help reduce neck, back, or arm pain.
If you have to lift something heavy, use the muscles in your arms and legs instead of your back, and make sure you keep your back straight while lifting and carrying. Alternately, look for a wheeled cart or wagon so you don’t have to carry heavy stuff. Even a tarp dragged over the ground will work for some jobs, like hauling lawn clippings or leaves.
Also, no matter how careful you are about your posture and body position, doing the same action for long enough will start to hurt. Keep an eye on the time (or set a timer), and take a break after a while. Switch from raking to mowing to give your arms a rest, or just leave the rest of the job to finish the next day. Even if this means that you do your gardening and yard work over several days, instead of all at once, it will save you a lot of aches and pains.
3. Find new ways to garden with pain
Consider a non-traditional garden to make things easier to do with a pain condition.
Many pain conditions can cause limited mobility. Even if your pain condition doesn’t limit your mobility, kneeling and bending to tend your traditional, ground-level garden can cause some serious aches and pains. To avoid all the hassle, move away from the ground-level garden and get creative. For instance, hanging baskets can be a real art form for some, and they’re also high enough that you won’t have to do a lot of bending or kneeling to reach them.
A raised garden, such as window boxes on a porch railing or raised beds, can also reduce the need to bend and kneel. You can buy or build kits for raised garden beds, or you can get a ready-made one. This raised garden, for example, is even on wheels, making it very easy to move around. If carrying around a heavy watering can bothers you, look for self-watering planters or boxes, like this elevated, self-watering bed.
Another fun alternative to a ground-level garden is the vertical garden. You can find lots of fun do-it-yourself information online, like this how-to if you’re really handy, or you can buy pre-made, wall-mounted frames for vertical gardens.
4. Use pain-friendly tools to help
There are lots of other products that can make gardening and yard work with a pain condition much easier.
Consider looking for kneeling pads or, better yet, a small stool or seat to use while working in the garden. For instance, this garden kneeler can work either as a kneeling platform with handles to make standing up easier, or, when flipped over, as a small bench.
Look for gloves with padding to make gripping easier. Also, some companies are now making tools like trowels or forks with larger or more ergonomic handles. Certain tools are even designed to lessen the amount of wrist movement necessary or reduce the need to bend or kneel.
Rather than hauling around a heavy watering can or dragging a heavy hose, look for lightweight hoses. Alternatively, if you have a ground-level garden, consider running a drip or soaker hose so all you have to do is turn on the water.
5. Make sure to rest afterwards
If you notice a few minor aches or pains after gardening or doing yard work, be proactive.
Don’t wait a day or two to see if the pain goes away on its own. Treat the pain as soon as it appears to keep it from worsening. Do a few stretches. Then ice the sore spots. Take a medication if necessary. Ease off from further gardening or yard work until the pain has gone away, and when you are up to working outside again, take it easy. If the pain persists for more than three days or is severe, talk to your physician.
6. Ask for help when gardening with pain
Also, remember that it’s okay to ask for help. If you’ve got a friend or family member who’s willing to lend a hand with the more difficult jobs, great. If not, look around for a neighborhood kid or college student who’d like to earn a little pocket money.
You don’t have to hire someone to do all the work for you. If you want, you can have someone else do the jobs that are challenging or unenjoyable for you, which will allow you to save all your energy for whatever you find the most fun.
What tricks or tools do you use when gardening with pain?