4. Do not squat for prolonged periods when planting seeds or picking produce. Unless you have unusual flexibility, sustained squatting can have adverse effects on your knees and ankles. Squatting almost always results in heels lifting off the ground and knees extending farther forward than the feet. Both of these positions create considerable shearing forces across the ankle and knee joints, which can lead to a variety of physical problems. Instead of squatting on both feet, try kneeling on one knee with the other foot flat on the ground. Although knee pads may be desirable for greater comfort, this is a much safer and stronger position for working near ground level. I recommend keeping both knees at approximately right angles, and alternating the kneeling leg every few minutes.
5. Do not hoe or rake with a bent waist. Reaching too far in front of your body when hoeing or raking may place excessive stress in the low back area. When the torso is bent forward, the low back muscles must work extra hard and frequently tend to freeze in this position. If you have ever had difficulty and discomfort trying to straighten up after a sustained session of hoeing or raking, you undoubtedly know the devastating feeling to which I am referring. Do your best to maintain a relatively erect posture and hoe or rake a small area near your feet, moving as much as necessary to do the job and cover the work area.
6. Do not bend forward to lift grass clipping collection containers. Although I am a big fan of mulching mowers, I well remember the days of disconnecting, lifting, carrying, and dumping the grass clipping collection container. Whether you use a walking or riding mower, the problem remains the same, namely, bending over to disconnect and lift a somewhat weighty container filled to the brim with grass clippings. The forward-bending lifting action places significant stress on your low back musculature, and can lead to serious injuries, particularly if you twist to either side during the lifting movements. Rather than predispose your low back muscles to a variety of problems, keep a fairly erect posture and use the large muscles of your legs to lift the grass clipping bag or box. This requires bending at the knees rather than bending at the hips. When done properly, you perform a backward sitting action to reach the grass clipping collection container. This keeps your heels on the ground and your knees above your shoes for best biomechanics and reduced risk of joint injury. The lifting action is accomplished by your powerful thigh muscles (quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteals) as you rise to a standing position with your back straight and protected.
As a general guideline, any activity or repetitive movement pattern that causes stiffness or soreness in your lower back or other joint structures should be modified accordingly. This usually requires maintaining a more erect posture, using the leg muscles for lowering and lifting actions, and keeping implements (mowers, hedge trimmers, hoes, rakes, etc.) relatively close to your body. With these things in mind, and an appropriate pre-conditioning program, you should enjoy a productive and injury-free spring season of lawn and garden activity.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. He is editorial advisor for many publications, including Shape Magazine, Prevention Magazine, Club Industry Magazine, and Men's Health Magazine, and author of several fitness books including the new releases, Building Strength and Stamina and Strength Training Past 50. Dr. Westcott was recently honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from IDEA, and the Healthy American Fitness Leader Award from the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.