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Ingo Zirpins: The dilemma of the garden weekend warrior

Repetitive strain injuries are injuries to muscles, nerves, ligaments or tendons often caused by improper technique of activity, or overuse.
Photo by Anna Earl on Unsplash

Spring is coming, folks! I can feel the itch to hit the gardens and start to tend the soils in preparation for the imminent explosion of another cycle of nature’s gardens, bounty and beauty. Everything accelerates in spring. Grasses suddenly grow fast, plant volunteers like to dominate my well designed landscaping, fallen wood might still need to be harvested before it disappears in the sea of new growth, and new foundations for my 2021 garden visions still need to be built, put in place or amended. It sometimes feels like a race that nature generally tends to lead, and if I try too hard to get ahead, I injure myself.

Even though I am a professional movement educator, I had many moments in those past 12 years of living and land managing in Nevada County, where my own ego and drive has caused me prolonged physical suffering. I recall once showing off that I can weed whack longer and faster than those workers I hired, and I paid with two weeks of excruciating back pains. I remember another time doing tractor work non-stop, rendering me with weeks of inability to look over my shoulders. Oh, and did I mention that chronic tennis elbow that started after shoveling yards and yards of amendment soils?

These are just a few examples of a classic garden weekend warrior. Physical therapists love the weekend warrior, who engages in extreme physically strenuous activities on occasion, often ending up with classic injuries. Weekend warriors often present with complaints of neck pain, shoulder tendonitis, low back pains, elbow tendonitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, de Quervaine’s syndrome of the thumb, knee bursitis and many other repetitive strain injuries. Weekend warriors make great business for us, so dear colleagues, please forgive me if I offer a few suggestions to the garden weekend warriors to afford enjoyment of gardening without having to pay painful physical consequences.



Repetitive strain injuries are injuries to muscles, nerves, ligaments or tendons often caused by improper technique of activity, or overuse. Remind you, winter is the time for hibernation, introspection, and rest. The colder weather keeps us inside. The COVID-19 pandemic limited many of our regular routines even more, and our generally fast-paced world came to a near standstill. The imposed lockdown led to the closing or limiting of so many public places, such as fitness and activity centers, and current studies are now exploring the fitness and health concerns, as well as the psychological issues that arose in our culture due to the pandemic during this past year. While, hopefully, many of you have found alternative ways to stay active and strong, it is important to acknowledge that our bodies need to acclimate and, ideally, prepare for the changes of pace that comes with the activities of spring.

Warming Up

Like with any exercise activity, a proper warm-up routine is always beneficial, especially when you anticipate to be doing heavy lifting or repetitive strenuous activities. Give yourself some minutes to just move or walk before starting your projects. Take some moments to stretch your wrists, elbows, shoulders, knees, hips, ankles and your back. Stretching helps prevent injury by bringing blood flow to the muscles, warming them up, and decreasing any tightness they might have to prevent a strain or a tear.



Body Mechanics and Lifting

Joints, muscles, or tendons do not like to stay in positions of strain. Every joint can stretch to a certain end point, yet, is in the most relaxed place in between these endpoints, which we call a loose packed joint position.That is also the position where the muscles surrounding the joint can exert the greatest force, hence, provide stability and power. The same goes for the back when initiating a lift. The back is best held in a neutral position with the belly slightly pulled in, while the power should be coming from the legs. Avoid twisting while bending, and avoid strain from repetitive bending forward by making use of long handed tools, as well as stools, kneel mats and other alike supportive means. Having good postural awareness and frequently changing up activities are essential strategies for preventing garden injuries and strains.

Garden Tools

Garden tools are essential. Hands are not replacements for garden tools, as the fine hand muscles, especially when not trained, can easily fatigue and strain. Consider that not all tools fit every body’s needs. Make sure that your garden tools match your hand size, body size, ideally have ergonomic grips to avoid finger strain, and are not too heavy for you to handle, as all of the above can lead to preventable injuries. Also, as much as many of us like to feel the earth, wearing gloves is generally advised, especially since Nevada County soils tend to be a bit alkaline, which can cause painful skin tears on fingertips and palms. Add some soil bacteria and fungi, and you might have an infection.

Pacing

Truly, the most important aspect of healthy gardening is good pacing. I think we all know how easy it is to get caught up in the moment. Many times I found myself trying to finish the last bit of a project at the mere dimming of twilight’s last glimmer. The joy of gardening can make time pass in a blink, yet, the reminder comes at a later time, when the soreness and pain kicks in. Change up the activity, if you can, every ½ hour or so, so you avoid repetitive movement strains. Set an alarm to take breaks and smell the flowers or gaze at the beauty of your creation. Resting, even for brief moments, takes off the strain on your muscles and can help you to avoid injury.

All in all, we have to remember that, unless our livelihood depends on it, gardening ought to be a joy, not driven by the outcome, but by the experience of the ongoing process. We are only stewards of the land, merely observing and supporting the ongoing cycles of life.

Please check our website for suggestions on stretching and general postural mechanics at http://www.fitforlifencpt.com/weekendwarrior.

Move better, live better!

Ingo Zirpins, MSPT, has been a physical therapist for 18 years, specializing in Orthopedic Manual and Sports Medicine. He co-owns Fit for Life Physical Therapy (www.fitforlifencpt.com) in Grass Valley with Corey Vanderwouw.


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