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The Ergonomics of Gardening

April 25, 2011

This week’s guest post is provided by Allison Hampton, Hons. BKin, CK.  Allison is a Certified Kinesiologist residing in Guelph Ontario.  She is the co-owner and operator of Kinective Performance.

I have to admit that I am not a professional Gardener – by far.  I am actually a Kinesiologist who specializes in Ergonomics.   I do however have lots of family, friends, and neighbours who are avid gardeners. So while people talk about the beautiful plants and flowers they are growing and what type of fertilizer they are using, I am all the while wondering about the biomechanics of how they are planting their garden. In my mind’s eye I’m picturing a horror show of people straining their backs and necks, knees and arms, working until they are physically exhausted – all to make their yards look beautiful and more awe inspiring than their neighbour’s.   All the while I am waiting for an opportunity in the conversation to ask if they warm up before they start gardening, if they schedule jobs when it is easiest to do them, and if they apply proper ergonomic principles to their gardening practices?!  There is usually never a good time to ask these questions and if I do catch a break, I almost always get those weird looks that say:  YOU DON’T garden so what would you know about it.  But the fact is, even if I am not Gardener Extraodinaire, I am a Kinesiologist with a specialty in ergonomics and part of my job is assessing how proper body mechanics can be promoted to be more efficient, prevent injury and effectively use the most appropriate tools for the job.  So now with my Ergonomic Specialist hat on, and not my “keeping up with the Joneses” hat, I will provide you with some tips for preventing gardening injuries and increasing your gardening productivity – because proper posture and movement mechanics will help you conserve energy, avoid fatigue, and prevent injury … which leaves you with more energy to scope out your neighbour’s plot!

There is a common misconception out there that if you just have the right tools for the job you will have no problem getting the job done (and no pain will be experienced as a result).   It is true that the wrong tools will make the job more difficult and stress your muscles, however, approximately 75% of the pain we suffer is due to bad habits and attitude.

So first things first, let’s talk about using proper body mechanics while gardening.

Contract your abdominals when bending to lift something heavy.  Also, when lifting heavy objects, squat and bend your knees using your powerful thigh and buttock muscles (added benefit – your petunias grow, your backside will shrink but none of it at the cost of your back!).  If that wasn’t incentive enough: bending with your knees locked, you are actually lifting 50% of your body weight in addition to the object you are lifting – being a busy mom of 3 young kids and a business owner, I know I can’t afford all that extra energy expended into playing in the dirt!

Reduce the strain on your low back by keeping objects you are lifting close to your body and center of gravity.  Keep your arms close to your body and comfortably bent.

Stand upright when working at ground level and when using long handled gardening tools such as hoes, spades and rakes.

Keep your feet shoulder width apart, rather than close together.

When carrying, show off those bi-ceps and shoulder muscles by holding from underneath with your whole hand and keep the load close to your body; use two hands for balancing the load, if possible.  If you have to carry with one hand, switch sides so that you don’t pull your body out of alignment, stressing your back and hips.

Work below shoulder level whenever possible to avoid strain on your back and shoulders.  If you have to work above shoulder level, do so no more than 5 minutes at a time. (tip:  use a ladder to bring yourself up to the level you are working at).

Use both arms whenever possible.

Never over reach; move to the job and keep moving to be close to your work.

Don’t twist – face what you’re working on squarely.

Keep your elbows partially bent, especially when doing resistive activities requiring elbow strength i.e.: digging a hole for that beautiful Service Berry bush.

Work with forearms in neutral position (thumbs up).

Keep your wrists straight (in line with forearms) when pushing, pulling or grasping.

Avoid repetitive pinching and pulling with finger and thumb i.e.: no prolonged use of pruning scissors.

Hold objects with a light grasp or pinch, avoid a tight sustained grip

Tools: Size Does Matter!

Use the correct tool for the job.

Buy tools that fit you:  know your body’s weaknesses and focus on getting the best tools that avoid injury for that body part first.

Gardening tools that are sold as “ergonomic” are only good if they fit your body.

Try out tools before you buy them because handle size, length of spindle, and weight are all important factors when choosing and using a tool “ergonomically”.

Use long handled tools to reduce strain on your back, knees, and hips instead of reaching.

Telescopic and pistol-grip require less energy and keep the body in proper alignment.

Handle diameter is important.  Although a fatter handle feels more comfortable at the wrist it will fatigue your grip more quickly; thumb and forefinger should meet when wrapped around the handle; and indentations should encourage the neutral position (thumb up, wrist straight).

Keep tools sharp and in good shape – sharp digging tools reduce the amount of effort needed to dig.

Use thin gloves made of specific material appropriate for the task, covering the smallest area of hand as possible, without being restricting.  Too much padding in a glove will decrease overall hand coordination, power grip, decreases feeling in the hand, and hand strength by at least 30%.

Gardening is great exercise!  It is a very physically demanding activity requiring the use of your entire body.  So please take the time to warm up your body before you go out into the garden.  Spend about 10 minutes on a warm up routine to get your blood pumping, your joints limber, and your muscles pliable and ready to work!

Also, remember gardening is a source of relaxation and exercise.  Try not to overdo yourself.  Plan for rest breaks (a few minutes every hour even if you do not feel tired!), drink plenty of water, and avoid dehydration.  If you are gardening for more than an hour drink a protein/electrolyte/carbohydrate drink to recharge your body.  After 3 hours take a break and eat a small meal of whole grains, protein and vegetable and fruit.

Don’t forget to rotate tasks often!  When rotating tasks move from a physically demanding task to a light activity every 20-30 minutes.   Muscles typically fatigue in less than a half hour of repetitive activity; therefore your activities should rotate between ones that require different muscle groups and different body positions.

Use your overall physical activity tolerance level as your guide for engaging in gardening tasks i.e.: if you can usually do 2 hours of physical activity in a day then you should only garden for 2 hours a day.

Whatever your level of gardening knowledge and expertise, keeping your body conditioned, practicing healthy habits, and using the right tools will keep you gardening pain free for years to come – maybe even after the Joneses have long retired their flowery gardening gloves and fancy fertilizer.

And go easy on yourself – remember that changing your work habits takes practice and time.  You will need to pay close attention to your actions and movements and readjust frequently in the beginning.  With a little dedication these changes will become habit … and you will become an Ergonomic Gardener Extraordinaire!

For more information on ergonomics Allison Hampton can be contacted at

From → Healthy Activity

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