Whether you’re mowing the lawn, gardening, raking or weeding, it’s no secret that sometimes yard work can lead to back pain. This is especially true as you get older as the likelihood of experiencing back pain increases as you age.

The way we do everyday things, like yard work, puts stress on our bodies. A wrong move can cause a new injury. Plus, improper body mechanics like the way you lift and twist can speed up age-related changes on your spine, which is a common cause of back pain. If you already deal with chronic back pain, these outdoor activities can lead to flare-ups – so you may end up avoiding them.

We’ve treated many patients with chronic back pain through our TRIA Neck and Back Strengthening Program. Over time, we’ve learned that routine physical activity is key to avoiding and managing low back pain flare-ups. And gardening or yard work can both be great ways to stay active if you follow a few key safety tips.

Talk to your doctor before getting started

Before you hit the garden, take a moment to stop and assess your body’s needs. Have your knees or rotator cuffs been sore lately? Do you have a chronic injury that flares up with too much activity? Now is the perfect time to talk with your doctor. They’ll be able to address any concerns you may have or even help you come up with a battle plan for safer gardening.

Warm up to prevent muscle cramps

Take 5-10 minutes to warm up prior to jumping into gardening or yard work. Stretch your lower back, arms and legs, then take a brisk walk around your yard or neighborhood. This type of warm-up can improve your range of motion and prevent cramping, stiffness and soreness.

Get down on one knee

A man demonstrates the one knee up position outside on a green lawn.

Taking care of our yards and gardens often involves a lot of standing, kneeling and sitting. All that up and down is hard on the joints and muscles. When you’re working at ground level, try to kneel on just one of your knees with the other positioned upright to stabilize your lower back.

If this position doesn’t work for you, try side-sitting, which can also decrease stress on your lower back. And don’t be afraid to get comfortable with a pad or small stool for support.

A man demonstrates the side-sitting position outside on a green lawn.

Also, remember to avoid extending your reach too far. Working closer to the body can help you avoid rounding out your lower back, so you can focus on keeping a neutral spine as opposed to an arched one.

Pivot, don’t twist

Pivoting your body is always the best option. That means moving your feet and hips in the same direction as your upper body, instead of keeping them planted and twisting at the spine.

While twisting may not seem like something that could result in injury, it sometimes can – especially for seniors. Your muscle fibers shorten and soften as you age, so movements that once seemed harmless can more easily lead to strain. Overtwisting can result in overstretched ligaments, muscle spasms or injury and spinal issues.

If twisting is unavoidable, make sure to engage your core by pulling your belly button in toward your spine as you move.

Shuffle as you rake

Whether you’re raking dead grass in the spring or fallen leaves in the fall, think “small strokes.” Instead of keeping your feet planted and bending your back to extend your reach, use smaller strokes and shuffle your feet back and forth. This can help you avoid putting pressure on muscles in the lower back and encourage a neutral spinal alignment. The “smalls strokes” technique can also apply to mowing the lawn. Just make sure to stay in an upright posture and keep the lawnmower handle close to your body.

Bend your knees, not your waist, and maintain a straight posture

When picking up heavier objects, such as large bags of leaves, sticks or weeds, squat down by bending at your knees instead of your waist. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart, and lift with your legs. Many lifting injuries are the result of poor technique, putting pressure on the lower back instead of the hips.

Another good lifting habit is keeping heavy things close to your body. This will engage your core and give you more control over your movements, decreasing the risk of over-stretching, falling and twisting. If you have a lot of material to haul (rocks, mulch, etc.), use a garden cart or wheelbarrow.

Give yourself a break

With all of these tasks, it’s important to change positions and take frequent breaks. Rotate between tasks as you go to avoid putting too much stress on one part of your body. For example, instead of raking, weeding and then pruning for an hour each, rake for 20 minutes, then weed for 20 minutes, then prune for 20 minutes. Take a short break between each task, and then restart the circuit.

And remember – there’s no shame in slowing down. You don’t have to complete everything in one day. The important thing is that you listen to your body, and move at your own pace. When taking breaks, make sure to stay hydrated.

Around 80% of adults will experience back pain at some point in their lives, but it doesn’t have to hold you back from doing what you love.

What to do if you experience back pain after gardening and yard work

Even if you've been very careful, gardening can still cause a mild strain or chronic back pain to flare. Every body, and its abilities, are different – it’s easier to overdo it than many of us realize. But there are plenty of ways to care for yourself if you find yourself in pain after gardening.

Take care of those sore muscles

As soon as you start to feel pain, stop working. Your body is trying to tell you something. Stand up straight, stretch your muscles, and ice any spots that are sore. This can help loosen muscles and ease pain.

Take Tylenol for pain relief – it’s safe and very effective for sore muscles. However, it’s important to consult your doctor before taking any medications.

Don’t rest too long

Take it easy with any activities you have to do. It’s also helpful if you can keep doing simple stretches to avoid stiff muscles. Slowly get back to your normal exercising and daily activities. If the pain isn’t improving or gets worse, keep lightening your routine. It can take a week or as long as a month to get back to normal.

See a doctor if things get worse

If you’re experiencing back pain that isn’t getting better after a few days, it may be time to schedule an appointment with your doctor or directly with a physical therapist. Physical therapy is covered by many types of insurance plans including Medicare.

A PT can help you reduce or manage pain, improve mobility and increase function. For those with chronic back pain (which lasts 12 weeks or longer) a more robust neck and back strengthening program, like TRIA, is recommended.