5 tips for avoiding pain while working in the garden

One of the joys of retirement, I’ve been told, is tending a garden — digging deep into the soil to build a landscape in which we can relax and, both literally and figuratively, enjoy the fruits of our labors.

Older white couple smiling outside in their garden

But sometimes those labors can lead to aches and pains in one’s neck, back, knees and more. Here are some tips on how to reduce your pain while working in the yard.

Set realistic goals before you put on those gardening gloves.

One of the best ways to avoid wasted time, money and effort is to make a plan. Think about what exactly you want to do in your garden and make sure you plan for the time and effort to buy your plants and flowers as well. People often set aside the time for weeding and planting without thinking about how long it will take to select what you’ll be setting into the ground, or that you might be sore after loading and unloading everything at the store and at home.

It’s best to work slowly and methodically. The experts at Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy, a Physiquality member with several locations in Arizona, remind gardeners that they “will work stronger for longer” if they work at a steady pace rather than trying to rush through your task list. If you’ve got a large garden or extensive plans for your landscaping, it’s probably better to plan for two or three hours in the garden over several days rather than trying to do it all in one day.

A young Black boy digs in a garden. The feet of several other people can be seen behind him distantly.

Warm up your body before you start digging.

While planting some perennials isn’t an intense workout like riding your bike or taking an aerobics class, gardening is still a physical activity, so it’s a good idea to loosen up your muscles before you start planting. The American Physical Therapy Association recommends taking a brisk 10-minute walk and stretching your back, legs and arms before you get to work.

It’s also a good idea to do the same after gardening, with a 5 – 10 minute cool-down — even something as simple as taking your dog for a quick walk around the block.

Pay attention to your body.

Getting close to those petunias can be rough on your back and knees. The APTA recommends using knee pads or a gardening pad to give your knees a break. BetterPT advises gardeners to pay attention to their posture, using the core to keep the back upright and the shoulders back, rather than hunching over the plants. It might be worth investing in elevated planters or raised garden beds, so you don’t have to bend over more than necessary — and it might even enhance your landscaping.

A family of a mom, dad and child play with a wheelbarrow in the yard.

Use a wheelbarrow or garden cart to move around heavy materials.

Plants, mulch and dirt are all heavy; avoid breaking your back by using the proper tools to move them around the yard. It’s better to do multiple small loads rather than one or two large ones, and Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy reminds you to squat and lift with your legs rather than bending over.

Change positions and take breaks frequently.

Be sure to change positions regularly (every 20 to 30 minutes) and take full breaks at least once an hour to rest in the shade and hydrate. If you start to feel aches in a particular muscle, stretch in the opposite direction and change your position, or switch to a different activity for a little while. If you’re not great about enforcing such rules, Foothills Sports Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy suggests setting a timer — and not setting it nearby. This way you’ll be forced to get up and turn it off, automatically changing your position and posture.

While small aches and pains are normal, particularly as we age, if you are feeling intense pain after you garden, or the aches and pains started during your work in the yard but didn’t fade away after a day or two, you may want to talk to your physical therapist about why you’re feeling such pain. If you’re looking for a physical therapist near you, use our locator below to search for a Physiquality clinic in your neighborhood.

Thank you to our contributors:

Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy is a Physiquality member with several clinic locations in Arizona. Providers of physical therapy for more than 15 years, their PTs and PTAs deliver hands-on physical therapy with integrity and accountability, ensuring the best possible patient results.

Avruskin, Andrea. Seven tips to avoid aches and pains during gardening. American Physical Therapy Association.

Schreiber, Jennifer. Lawn and Garden Month: Tips on preventing back pain while gardening. Foothills Sports Medicine Physical Therapy.

“The dig in the garden” by Time’s Up! Environmental Organization is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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