When I look at the economic news: the housing crunch, the high cost of groceries, or the possibility that AI will render my professional skills obsolete – I often come back to the same thought: I should start growing my own vegetables.
Financial savings and fresh produce aside, research shows gardening and spending time in nature has been shown to reduce stress, depression, and anxiety. For people like me who live in cities where community gardens are popular, there’s evidence that gardening helps build a sense of community with neighbors.
And of course, the regular, moderate-intensity exercise of planting, weeding, and pruning can supports general health.
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Sounds like a win all around. But there’s a problem. Like about 20% of adults in the U.S., I live with chronic pain, including many with back pain. Mine is in my pelvis and legs, and it can make repetitive bending or crouching very uncomfortable.
Fortunately for me, this spring I’ve been seeing Rebecca Stephenson, a clinical specialist in physical therapy at Newton-Wellesley Hospital in Massachusetts. She has a passion for plants — in her own garden she grows flowers like sedum, coleus, peonies, as well as herbs — and has a lot of ideas about how to modify gardening activities to prevent pain.
She says gardening can benefit people with chronic pain. “You’re exercising, breathing outside in nature and getting good lung expansion. You’re also using your arms and legs in a coordinated way.” Luckily she says, “there is a way to garden so that you don’t hurt yourself and end up in pain afterwards.”
Here are some of Stephenson’s tips for getting your hands in the dirt, without the hurt.
Like any physical activity, Stephenson says you can build endurance for gardening, step by step. Don’t overdo it. “It’s happened to me where I’ve gone out for four or five hours, and it’s going to cost me for two weeks.” But her professional training helps her stay grounded. “I come at it from underneath. Instead of going over your limit, I try to come under,” she says.
“What I really recommend is to take your garden project and see how you could split it up into smaller pieces and be very reasonable about the amount of time that you’re physically able to do it. So it might be a half an hour, it might be 15 minutes, it might be an hour, and then take a break, change your body position, do some stretches,” she says.
Embrace ‘functional bracing’
“Sometimes people wear a back brace just for gardening, and that gives them a little bit more of a reminder to be