Anne Asher, a movement specialist from The MOVE! Blog, has been kind enough to answer some common questions about how professional and/or passionate gardeners can reduce the strain that comes from repetitive gardening tasks. Here’s this month’s installment:
Fall is a great time to plant shrubs and trees, because plants can get their roots established and be watered in by the winter rains. Do you have any tips for digging large planting holes without strain?
There are two points to think about with digging and shoveling. First, they are what I call one-legged activities. One foot is on the spade, which means both knee and hip joints will be bent for a good part of the time. The other leg will be straight and should be “planted” into the ground to stabilize your digging actions.
Many of us are what I call “accidents waiting to happen”. What this means is that because of strength and flexibility differences on either side of, or between front and back of the pelvic structure, we may be closer to a back or hip injury than we realize.
Add to this the fact that most people favor one side or the other when doing routine tasks, and you can see how it’s possible that one day you may be doing the same thing you always do, but something gives and you get injured. It’s like the “straw that broke the camel’s back”. Not that you will break your back, but the use of one leg for one part of the task and the other leg for the other part of the task over and over again results in some muscles getting really strong while others get stiff and weak.
So two suggestions here: First, try to include some kind of core strengthening and body alignment work at least once per week. Yoga and Pilates are great! Feldenkrais, while not a strengthening program can help you rediscover your natural pelvic and body balance.
The second tip is, and I want to emphasize that you should really get started with the first tip before trying this, is to switch out the sides from time to time. So if your right foot is usually the one on the spade, then try the digging action with your left foot and “plant” the right for stabilization.
The other thing to remember is that with a heavy task such as this, you want to find ways to avoid muscle and joint strain. Explore how you can use your body weight as leverage. For example, when the foot is on the spade, instead of pushing or thrusting the shovel into the ground, can you lean your weight in towards the ground? If you’ve ever done Tai Chi, this is Tai Chi in action.
Another time to use your body weight is once you’ve gotten the dirt onto the spade and you are ready to lift it out. Can you lean back with your body weight, and with the help of your foot, leverage the dirt out from the ground?
Finally, when you dump the dirt, try to get out of the habit of throwing it over your shoulder, which inevitably twists the spine. Research has shown that it’s very easy to herniate a disc by lifting and twisting at the same time. You have to train yourself at first, but walk the shovel around to where you need to dump the dirt. In other words, turn your whole body, not just your spine.
With my last thought I’d like to bring you full circle, back to the beginning. Preface your digging activity by establishing a relationship with your shovel. Plant it lightly into the soil right in front of your body. Ideally the spade will be level and parallel with the (imaginary) line going across your two front hip bones.
***Do you have any areas that hurt you when you garden? Let us know in the comments, and Anne can answer your questions in future articles.***
Anne Asher has been in the bodywork and holistic health field for over 20 years. She has worked in chiropractors’ offices, physical therapy clinics and in her own business. She taught Pilates based exercise to people with chronic musculoskeletal pain for 5 years in Humboldt County. Anne is now the Back and Neck Pain guide on About.com. About.com is a New York Times web property.
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