Ergonomic Gardening (Gardening Ergonomics)
Gardening Ergonomics = learning proper body mechanics to effectively use tools that fit the job and the person doing the job.
Whether it is gardening, lifting the groceries, cleaning house, chopping wood, or just sitting at your desk, ergonomics starts with good posture. The design of a tool or workstation means nothing without instructing the person on the proper posture to maintain while using the tool or workstation. Proper posture and movement mechanics will help you conserve energy, avoid fatigue and prevent injury. If your posture and movement mechanics are incorrect, an ergonomically designed product will not provide you with the desired effect of injury prevention. For example, if you purchase a chair that fits your body like a glove, but sit on its edge with your shoulders rounded and head forward, the ergonomic design of your chair does you no good. It is extremely important to understand that a dangerous position or lift may "appear" or "feel" acceptable to someone until an injury has occurred.
Proper standing posture
- Standing in balance facilitates economy of movement, thereby reducing fatigue and the frictions that produce aches and pains in joints and muscles.
Here are eight steps in assuming a balanced standing position:
- Place both feet parallel, a few inches apart, big toes pointing straight ahead.
- Slowly draw the buttock and Adductor muscles (inner thigh muscles) tightly together.
- Press toward the ball of each foot and hold the body weight evenly distributed on both legs.
- With the muscles in front of the thighs (quadriceps), pull up both kneecaps.
- From the small of the back (lumbar region), with the long muscles, slowly stretch the back straight upward. Draw yourself up toward the "crown" of the head.
- Simultaneously, gently move the chin slightly forward until it is held at right angles to the front of the neck.
- From the center of the upper back, with the shoulder blade muscles (rhomboids and trapezius), slowly draw the shoulder blades back and down until they are flat and held together.
- Let the arms hand loosely at the sides.
Proper bending and lifting posture
- Bend at the hips, not the waist.
- Sit back as if you are going to sit in a chair behind you.
- Allow your knees to bend as you bring your hips backward.
- Stand up straight.
- Keep the object as close to you as possible.
- Squeeze your shoulder blades together when holding the object.
- Brace your abdominal muscles BEFORE you lift the object.
- Contract the abdominal muscles (like you are about the get punched in your gut).
- Contract the buttock muscles (as if you are holding in a bowel movement).
Proper sitting position
- Let your feet rest flat on the ground.
- Hold your back straight.
- Slide your left hand, palm upward, under your buttocks on the left side; that is, between the buttocks and the chair. Place your right hand similarly.
- Move the fingers until you feel a bony ridge pressing against the fingers. This bony ridge is the sitting bone.
- Now rock the trunk forward and backward on the sitting bone. Sense how the pressure on the fingers increases and decreases depending upon the position of your trunk. When the pressure on the fingers is greatest you are using the proper point on the sitting bones for balancing the trunk. It is comparable to the exact spot on the rocking chair that will balance it and thus hold it steady.
Preparation for Gardening: The Warm-up
You wouldn't play basketball or softball without warming up, so why would you garden without warming up. Gardening is a very physical activity requiring use of the entire body. Proper preparation is the next facet in injury prevention. Spend 10 minutes doing a warm up.
Gardening Ergonomics: Neck
- Keep your work close to you. Minimize reaching. Use long handled tools instead of reaching.
- Maintaining your head and neck in an extended position (looking up) for more than 5 minutes at a time will create tremendous fatigue. Take a break after 5 minutes when working while looking up and your arms over the shoulder level.
- If you must work with your arms extended out in front of you, don't round your shoulders. Keep your shoulder blades pulled together.
Gardening Ergonomics: Back
- Put leaves and garden debris on a canvas tarp and slide along the ground to eliminate lifting.
- Introduce raised beds, containers and trellises - bring the garden closer to you - the closer your garden to waist level, the less bending and the less strain on your lower back.
- Furrow rows with long PVC pipe cut at a slant on one end; drop seeds through the pipe to plant.
- Alternate sitting and standing positions at 30-minute intervals.
- Keep your work close to you. Minimize reaching. Use long handled tools instead of reaching.
- Digging should be done with intermittent breaks in order that your body can rest from the repetition.
- Bending over for any length of time can very quickly become painful to the lower back and legs.
- Ice your back for 15 minutes after you garden.
Gardening Ergonomics: Knees
- Use kneepads to protect your knees.
- Ice your knees for 15 minutes after you garden.
Gardening Ergonomics: Shoulders
- Work below shoulder level when possible. When that is unavoidable, perform the task for 5 minutes or less.
- Use both arms whenever possible.
- When necessary to work above shoulder level, perform the task for five minutes or less; then take a break or perform another activity before continuing.
Gardening Ergonomics: Elbows
- When possible, work with the forearms in a neutral position (i.e. thumbs up).
- Keep the elbows partially bent while gardening, especially when doing resistive activities requiring elbow strength.
- Keep your wrists straight (in line with your forearm) when pushing, pulling and grasping. This decreases the tension on the elbow and wrist.
- Avoid twisting the forearms back and forth on a repetitive basis (example: pulling weeds by twisting the forearm palm up and then palm down). Consider using a weeder.
Gardening Ergonomics: Wrists (Grip)
- Rules of "thumb": 1) thumb and forefinger should meet when wrapped around a handle, and 2) indentations should encourage the neutral position (thumb up, wrist straight).
- Work with wrists in a neutral position by avoiding the extremes of motion (up, down, and sideways).
- Hold objects with a light grasp or pinch, avoiding a tight, sustained grip.
- Keep your wrists straight (in line with your forearm) when pushing, pulling and grasping.
- This decreases the tension on the elbow and wrist.
- Grip strength is at its maximum when the wrist is in a relaxed or "neutral" position. People lose up to 25% of their grip strength when their wrist is bent.
- Avoid repetitive pinching and pulling with the finger and thumb.
Gardening Ergonomics: Gloves
- Always use gloves. Not only do they protect against cuts, scrapes, chemicals and blisters, they also provide padding.
- Gloves should be made of material appropriate for the specific task (example: gloves for working with chemicals as opposed to gloves for pruning rose bushes or working with the soil).
- Gloves should be form fitting covering the smallest area of the hand possible, without being restrictive.
- Thin gloves are preferable even though they will generally not last as long. Too much padding will decrease the feeling in the hand and decrease hand strength by as much as 30%. This decreases overall hand coordination and power grip.
Gardening Ergonomics: Tools
- Choose the proper tool for the task at hand.
- Look for ergonomic tools. Just because the tool says it is "ergonomic" does NOT mean it is ergonomic for you! It must fit YOUR body.
- Try out tools before you buy because handle size, weight, and length of spindle are all key when it comes to using a tool.
- Telescopic and pistol-grip handles require less energy and keep the body in proper alignment.
- Handle diameter is important. For some people, a fatter handle feels more comfortable at the wrist. However, a fatter handle will fatigue your grip more quickly.
- Look for a depression in the handle for your thumb. This keeps your hand in proper alignment.
- Shorter tool handles provide greater leverage control (best for small hand tools).
- Use long-handled tools to reduce strain on your back, knees and hips instead of reaching.
- If tools have wooden or metal handles, consider adding padded tape or pipe insulation foam. You can also modify the grip on your favorite tools. To determine the size of your grip, make a circle with your thumb and index finger. A bicycle grip, baseball tape, foam, and electrical tape all can be used to pad the handle.
- Keep blades sharp and oiled. Dull blades require more force to get the same job done.
- Load tools, supplies, rocks and other heavy items onto a vinyl snow sled; pull it around to work stations. A wheelbarrow is another option.
- In a need to get your tools and other materials to the designated area don't aggravate your body by trying to carry everything at once. Make several trips.
- Be aware of the dangers from gardening tools and equipment. Don't leave tools or hose pipes in places where they are likely to cause an accident.
Gardening Ergonomics: General Tips
- Gardening is a source of pleasure and exercise but don't overdo a session. Plan for breaks and switch tasks often. Move from an intensive task to a light activity after 30 minutes. If you experience pain, stop working.
- Rotate activities. Muscles will typically fatigue in less than a half hour of repetitive activity; therefore, rotate each gardening activity with ones that require different muscle groups and different body positions. Spread the gardening tasks over a number of days versus performing all of them the same day.
- Let your daily physical activity level serve as your guide for how long you can garden. For example, if you are physically active 1 hour a day, you should be able to garden an hour a day. Even if you do not feel fatigued, take a break for a few minutes each hour.
- Wide garden paths allow for safer walking and favor use of labor saving wheelbarrows, carts and dollies.
- Think about who uses the garden when designing features such as a steps, paths or ponds. Will it include elderly people or young children? A steep drop from one level to another can be an accident waiting to happen. Be careful of uneven surfaces.
- Water weighs more than 8 pounds per gallon; so design your garden with easy access to hoses and water sources. Consider an efficient automated drip or soaker hose system.
- Be sure to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration while you are gardening. If you are going to work more than one hour, try making a carbohydrate/protein/electrolyte beverage (some protein powder and a banana works great) to recharge your body. If you are going to garden for more than 3 hours, take a break and eat a small meal of whole grains, veggies and protein.
Gardening Injury Prevention and Exercise Program
Get Going For Gardening DVD
Dr. Horwitz is available to lecture or provide ergonomic consultation to groups. Call us at 301-622-9000 to schedule.