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Health & Exercise Forum

Prevent Injuries in the Garden: Part 2. Tips for Gardening with Disabilities.

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Jun 6, 2011

Dr. Mackarey's Health & Exercise ForumSummer is finally here and gardeners in northeast PA are anxious work in their gardens and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Last week, this column presented tips for gardeners for preventing hand and arm injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. This week’s column is dedicated to prevention of lower back and lower body injuries when working in the yard and for gardeners with disabilities….

A relaxing and enjoyable activity for many, gardening can turn dangerous without proper precaution as repetitive stress injuries, back pain, muscle pulls, can stem from raking, weeding, digging and pruning, can turn into serious problems if not treated appropriately.  Since prevention is the best approach, the US Dept of Agriculture promotes warm-up exercises and injury prevention tips to help all levels of gardeners avoid serious and long-term injuries while enjoying this popular outdoor activity.

People with various disabilities enjoy gardening at different levels. For example, those suffering from neurological diseases with muscle weakness, paralysis and poor balance as well as those with musculoskeletal problems such as neck and LBP or hip and knee arthritis can safely enjoy gardening at some level. This outdoor labor of love is very therapeutic.

Warm up and stretching is important. Don’t garden first thing in the morning before you have a chance to warm up. Get up, go for a short walk, have breakfast and maybe warm up with a hot shower before working in the garden. Some stretches include; Chin Tuck – bring chin over shoulders; Shoulder Blade Pinch – pinch shoulder blades together; Standing Extension – bend backwards at the waist.

Note:  These exercises should never be painful when completing them.  You should only feel a gentle stretch. Hold the stretch10 seconds and repeat 5 times before you garden and every 20 -30 minutes while working. Should you experience pain, please consult your family physician or physical therapist.

The following guidelines to prevent injury and foster healthy gardening for those with and without disability:

  • Listen To Your Body – Aches and pains are signals from your body that you may be doing something wrong or overdoing it. Just like a baseball player in spring training, you must ease into a new activity slowly and stop before you get pain. Do not try to do it all in one day.
  • Take Frequent Breaks – Perform work in short sessions, with a rest and stretch break between gardening sessions to reduce muscle fatigue and pain.
  • Change Positions Often – Alternate positions from standing, sitting, bending, and kneeling every 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Use Large Muscles- When possible use the large muscles of the body to do the work. For example, use your legs to push a shovel blade into the ground instead of your arms. Also, lift with your legs and not your back.
  • Avoid Awkward Motions – Do not squat, twist and bend at the waist for prolonged periods or with repetition.
  • Use Supportive Devices and Braces – Remember to wear wrist and knee supports if you have a problem. A lower back brace or corset is also advisable when working in the garden to protect the spine and add support.
  • Use Well Designed Tools. Use the right tools for the job. Padded, ergonomic handles with extensions to add reach are helpful.
  • Use Sun Block and Sun Glasses – to protect your skin and eyes from the sun.
  • Plan ahead.  Use a container with wheels to carry supplies to the garden. When necessary it should be carried/pulled with hands, distributing the workload equally and decreasing stress in the joints of your body.
  • Eat Well and Stay Hydrated – When working outdoors eat and drink properly for the climate and temperature.
  • Use Adaptive Devices -  Special gardening carts, wheel barrels, motorized carts, and a garden tractor with a cart can make a job easier, especially for those with disabilities.
  • “Easy-Grip” tools are available for those unable to grip strongly. For example, hand shovels and weed cultivators that attach to the wrist/forearm with Velcro straps and tools with telescoping extensions are available. (
  • Mobile Adjustable Stools – with arm rests and 2-3 steps that allow you to go from sitting upright to a position closer to the ground.
  • Elevated and Raised Beds – allows gardening from a standing, sitting or wheelchair height for improved safety and enjoyment.
  • Pipe Planter or Seeder – a PVC pipe 5-6 feet long allows planting and seeding without bending or kneeling. For example, a 6 or 8 inch pipe allows plants to slide down and be tampered into a hole and a 1-2 inch pip allows seeds to slide down to the ground for cover or planting.
  • Kneeling Pads, Mats, Carts – keep your knees and back healthy.

Source: Karen Funkenbusch, MA; Willard Downs, PhD.: U. S. Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Engineering Extension

If you missed Part 1 on this topic, click here to read about preventing hand injuries in the garden.

This article is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. If you have questions related to your medical condition, please contact your family physician. For further inquires related to this topic email:

Paul J. Mackarey PT, DHSc, OCS is a Doctor in Health Sciences specializing in orthopaedic and sports physical therapy. Dr. Mackarey is in private practice and is an affiliated faculty member at the University of  Scranton, PT Dept.