Most homeowners take advantage of warm, spring weekends to get out in the garden and get started on the yard work. This weekend was perfect for pruning, cutting and trimming, and I’m sure there were a lot of people bent over in their gardens, working away and using parts of their bodies that haven’t been used for the last few months.
This weekend I got a nice email from my neighbor and close friend, asking if I could write a column for elderly people like herself, who struggle with knee pain and back pain when gardening. Marg has had one of her knees replaced in the past and has noticed that every year she starts the gardening season with a little less strength and mobility than the previous year. This usually leads to progressively more knee and back pain throughout the spring and summer.
With activities like gardening and landscaping there is a lot of forward bending and lifting. To handle this stress, it’s vitally important that the knees are healthy, the legs are strong, and the back and core musculature are functioning properly. I explained to my neighbour, Marg that as her legs become weaker she won’t trust them as much. When she needs to crouch or bend she will default to using use her back. Gradually her leg muscles begin to tighten, reducing flexibility around her hip and knee joints. Less strength and flexibility in her legs eventually results in more stress at her knees and spine.
Following are 3 good stretches you can do in the garden to help your knees and spine. Next week I’ll discuss strengthening activities. Always consult your physician before undertaking a fitness program or making changes to your current routine, and remember to do a proper warm-up.
If your hamstrings are too tight, they’ll constantly pull down on the back side of your pelvis and put tension across the back of your knee joints. As you try to bend forward in the garden, this will prevent your pelvis from tilting forward and will cause you to bend excessively through the spine. Marg has noticed that this has contributed to an increased rounding of her upper back. To keep her hamstrings loose, I showed Marg a simple standing hamstring stretch that she can do multiple times daily, no matter where she is. By resting the heel of her foot on a low step and flexing forward from the hip joint, Marg easily felt a nice stretch in her hamstring. By putting her toes against the front of the next step, Marg also felt a strong stretch in her calf muscle. I always encourage people to maintain a long, tall spinal position, with a square pelvis and upright head. Perform this stretch twice on each leg for approximately 30-45 seconds, focusing on a breathing comfortably throughout.
With the goal of maintaining stable knee joints and a healthy lumbar spine, it’s important to keep the quadriceps and hip flexor muscles flexible and balanced. Since you’re often kneeling in the garden anyway, it shouldn’t be too difficult to step forward on one foot while keeping the core muscles engaged and the body upright and tall. Most people will feel a stretch in the front of the rear leg as soon as they get into this position. If you don’t, just press your hips forward slightly, while keeping your core tight. Be certain you don’t arch your back as you hold the stretch for 30-45 seconds on each side, then repeat.
The constant forward flexion during gardening causes rounding of the upper spine, and tightness in the muscles of the chest. This needs to be balanced out one way or another to allow for healthy posture and mobility. I regularly encourage my clients to find a convenient location to perform extension stretches to open up these areas and maintain better alignment. For Marg, I suggested a seated extension stretch performed in one of the ornamental chairs in her garden. Every time she passes the chair she should stop, sit and stretch by putting her fingers behind her ears and extending her upper spine over the back of the chair. As she breathes deeply and exhales she should be able to gradually extend further, pulling her elbows back to open up her chest. It’s important to keep the head in neutral, without looking too far up in the sky, which could stress the neck. By holding this stretch for 45-60 seconds and breathing comfortably, Marg will begin to reverse her tight upper-back curvature.
–Rob Williams is a kinesiologist, elite personal trainer and posture specialist. He has been practicing for 20 years and currently operates an exclusive private training studio Mixx Fitness Studio, with a team of 10 trainers, as well as a multi-disciplinary posture facility, Performance Posture Clinic. Rob’s parent company is Williams Health Group. Rob is an accomplished writer and speaker in the fields of fitness, posture and nutrition. He is a sought-after posture and performance coach for professional and amateur athletes and celebrities.