It’s the unofficial start of summer in Des Moines and many people are spending a good portion of it in the yard or garden doing physical labor. From a health standpoint, it is important to properly prepare your body to avoid injuries so you can pull weeds and not your back.

Gardening and yard work have many health benefits, including prevention of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.  It clears your mind after a long stressful day.  It calls for creativity and gives your brain a workout.  Gardening connects you with nature and the natural rhythm of life, allowing you to slow down and relax.  Deep cleansing breaths of fresh air circulate oxygen to your muscles and organs.  Being in sunshine gives you the best source of Vitamin D available. Gardening also provides the freshest and healthiest produce, which provides additional health benefits.

Yard work is an activity that provides regular physical exercise, both aerobic and strength training, and for this reason, it has tremendous health benefits.  It uses all the major muscle groups such as buttocks, legs, shoulders, stomach, arms, neck and core.  Gardening strengthens muscles and joints through lifting, pushing, pulling and digging motions.  It increases flexibility with stretching and reaching motions.  It builds aerobic endurance and burns calories by walking and changing positions frequently.

People often forget that gardening and working in the yard can be strenuous physical work. Read on to the following 3 tips to help you prevent injury before you head outdoors:

1. Warm Up

Start by properly warming up and conditioning your muscles.  It is also important to start out slowly to build up endurance. Begin building endurance by walking, stair climbing or doing squats a month or two before you get out in the garden.  Muscles respond better to the increased physical activity when they are properly conditioned, leading to fewer injuries.

Warming up with a brisk walk will loosen muscles and ligaments and get your blood flowing. After warming up, perform some dynamic stretching of the muscle groups you will be using the most. Some great stretches include trunk rotations for stretching the back, bringing your knee up to your chest to stretch your lower back and legs, and reaching above your head with hands locked to stretch arms and shoulders.

2. Switch Positions

Make sure to switch positions and hands frequently by varying your activities.  Remaining in one position for too long, especially one that is awkward or unusual, can restrict blood flow to tissues and promote sprains/strains.  Switch sides with jobs that require repetitive motions.  Doing all the raking, hoeing or shoveling on one side can lead to joint imbalances, spinal misalignments and muscle spasm. Try to switch it up every ten minutes to give your tired muscle groups a break. Using a variety of ergonomic tools, especially long handled ones that give you leverage, will put you in an optimal position and decrease stress on various parts of your body.

3. Protect Your Spine – Kneel, Don’t Bend

To protect your low back, avoid stooping and bending.  Try kneeling with kneepads or sit on a small stool so you are closer to the ground.  Whenever you are lifting, pushing or pulling, make sure to engage your core muscles to give more support to the low back area. Engage your core by pushing your midsection muscles out to form a stiff, wide cylinder of muscle support , NOT by sucking in your abs or belly button.  Avoid activities where you are bending forward, twisting sideways and tossing something, such as shoveling and throwing a heavy load.  This is a very common back injury. Also, try to save the heavier work for midway through your project so muscles and joints are properly warmed up.  Make sure to carry objects close to your body to reduce the risk of strain to your neck and back.

Even with preventative measures you may still find yourself with an injury.  There is a difference between tired muscles from working hard, and muscle spasms or pain from an injury. If you notice pain or difficulty while you are working, STOP!  You may cause serious damage by overdoing it. Ice and rest are best for an injury during the first 48-72 hours.

BONUS: Identify Structural Imbalances

If you do get injured, a structual chiropractor can evaluate your injury and help you determine course to help you recover.  Structural abnormalities within your body’s foundation (the spine) can lead to unnecessary tension on one particular body which can be aggravated by activity such as working in the yard. Many people notice they heal faster and are less likely to re-injure the same areas when they are evaluated by a structural corrective chiropractor BEFORE they engage in strenuous activity. Leaving these imbalances uncorrected leads to continued wear, tear, and strains on the body.

Gardening and yard work are very important activities to many people.  The list of health benefits is long and the rewards are many.  To ensure that you can continue to garden year after year, it is important to take care of your body.  By taking precautions ahead of time, conditioning muscles, correcting structural abnormalities, and properly treating injuries if they do occur, you will continue to reap the rewards of your bounty for a long time.