Pilates Plus

Back Care in the Garden

By Bunny Guinness | The Telegraph | 9th April 2009

Back care in the garden: Strengthening exercises can help you avoid injury, writes Bunny Guinness.

Take that load off: stronger core muscles will support the spine when you are doing garden chores.Gardeners grumble about their backs, often their weakest link. After a couple of long spring gardening sessions – especially after probably a rather inert, tucked-up winter – the back can go into spasm, and you can end up flat on your back. Catastrophe, especially at the busiest time in the garden.

It’s not surprising that doctors’ surgeries fill up with gardeners with back problems at this time of year. We whizz into the garden, twist, bend, and lift, failing to pace ourselves, never thinking to warm up first and stretch afterwards. Normal 21st-century living is abusive to our spines. Sitting for hours in the office (often with poor posture) in one position, driving for prolonged periods, lifting children, and slouching all contribute to weakening your back. Add to this a bit of surplus weight and it’s no wonder that our backs whine when we put them through their paces.

Our long S-curve-shaped spines contain 24 vertebrae, all of which are capable of movement, though sometimes not the way we want. The backbone is supported by ligaments backed up with a complex muscle system. These muscles, especially the deep core muscles, are responsible for your postural alignment, supporting your vertebrae like a corset, wrapping around you from front to back.

We are used to the effects of various exercises to give us toned biceps or whatever, but not many of us realise that exercising your core muscles creates a strong network of deep, strong postural muscles, which help to protect that line of vertebrae. A flat tummy is an added bonus.

My back used to be inherently dodgy. Short legs and a long back, I thought, was the cause, plus the fact I am constantly heaving large sacks of compost, moving heavy pots, pick-axing out plant holes and all those other back-breaking garden jobs.

However since starting to work with Jacqueline Knox, a physiotherapist and pilates teacher (01780 740242; www.barnhousephysio.co.uk), on a gardening exercise book about four years ago, my back has blossomed. I now know where my core muscles are and what they do. I haven’t felt a twinge for ages and can now lift even heavier weights.

Carrying out a simple exercise routine for just 15 minutes a day is number one on my list of how to look after your back.

Pilates is the method Jackie recommends, and finding a local teacher is essential initially. If you find pilates is not for you, (I failed first time around) the Alexander Technique, Feldenkrais method, yoga and t’ai chi all help too. Robbie Phelps teaches pilates in Peterborough (07732 632671; www.pilatespersonaltrainer.co.uk) and he introduced me to foam roller exercises. These are easy to grasp and do properly and they hone your core muscles beautifully. The foam rollers are available from The Physical Company (01494 769222; www.physicalcompany.co.uk ).

Maintaining flexibility is essential to keep a healthy back; it’s not all about strength. If you stretch daily you will quickly notice an improvement in your movement. Gardeners frequently suffer from stiffness in the lower back and tight hamstrings. Leg-lengthening stretches on a garden bench or lawn help with the latter (lying on your back and putting one leg straight up as vertically as you can); spine curls help with stiffness in the lower and upper back.

Once you have mastered your core and become supple, you then realise that many gardening jobs such as raking, digging and weeding can tempt you to work with a bent back, especially if you use shorter-handled tools. But these can be done with a straight back and slightly bent knees, with the core muscles engaged so your back is supported and your body is balanced.

Bending from the waist is common, but does put stress on the spine. Instead, keep your back straight and bend your knees, or squat. Squatting helps tone and stretch thighs, hips and buttocks and can be done with a straight back. Lifting correctly without bending your back and twisting your spine is key too.

Finally, do give your back regular breaks. Pretend the garden is a gym and just do 15 or 20 minutes on each activity so you don’t strain particular body parts. Warm up first, stretch after, and above all, of course – enjoy.