Warmer weather can mean spending more time outdoors for many people, which may include gardening. Gardening can be a great activity for both your body and your mind.  However, for people with arthritis, working in an awkward position or doing too much at once can leave you feeling sore and exhausted.  Below are some suggestions to help you reduce pain and stiffness while avoiding over-exertion, so that you can continue to enjoy your time spent in the garden.

1. Plan ahead

Spending some extra time in advance to plan out what you want to do, how you will do it and who can help will save you effort and time in the long run.  Having a clear idea of how much you can reasonably accomplish in a day and scheduling different tasks for different days will help you avoid overdoing it.

2. Warm up

As with any physical activity, it’s important to warm up beforehand.  Take a 10-minute walk at a moderate pace to get your heart and body going or try this 20-Minute Warm-Up for the Joints.

3. Start low and go slow

If you’ve been less active during the cold winter months, your body will need some time to adapt to increased activity. Think of gradually increasing both the amount of time you’re active and the effort you make while doing it.  You can plan to complete a task over the course of a week rather than trying to get everything done the first day.

4. Pace yourself

While it may be tempting on a beautiful day to spend hours in the garden, this could leave you feeling stiff and sore the next day.  Take time to “stop and smell the roses.”  You may want to set a time limit and alarm beforehand, 30 minutes or 1 hour for example, and hold yourself to it.

5. Take frequent stretch breaks

Staying in the same position for too long can lead to stiffness and pain.  Schedule frequent stretch breaks for yourself.  It might help to set an alarm to remind you to take a 10-minute break every hour at least (and listen to it!).  For some easy stretching exercise suggestions, visit the Arthritis Society’s Top 10 Exercises.    

6. Lighten the load with assistive devices

Many gardening activities can put extra stress on your joints, whether it’s kneeling for a long time, lifting heavy loads or gripping garden tools. Fortunately, there are a number of products available that can help make gardening easier for people with arthritis.  For example, a lightweight hose puts less strain on your hands and arms, while a garden kneeler seat can be used for kneeling and sitting to make gardening more comfortable.  Tools with larger grips or extended lengths can also make many tasks easier with arthritis.  Visit the Arthritis Society’s Ease of Use program to learn more about garden tools designed for comfort.   

7. Change tasks

As the saying goes, sometimes “a change is as good as a rest.”  If you want to continue working in your garden but want to minimize the strain on your joints, change tasks often so that different parts of your body are being used.  Take a break from work that is hard on the legs and back with a task that requires your arms or hands more.  If you’ve been kneeling for a while, try a task in a standing or seated position.  Remember to keep your joints properly aligned with good posture to avoid injury or unnecessary stress.    

8. Bring the garden to you

If working at low levels is difficult for your hips, knees or back, consider raised planters or an elevated container garden.  You may find it easier working from a seated or standing position rather than having to bend down or kneel.

9. Cover up

Some types of arthritis and some inflammatory arthritis medications can make individuals more sensitive to the sun.  It’s important to stay well-covered if you are spending a significant amount of time outdoors.  A wide-brimmed hat and lightweight long-sleeved shirt and pants can help you keep covered and cool.  Wear sunscreen and don’t forget to cover areas that might become exposed when bending over, such as the small of your back, your neck and your ankles. 

10. Protect your joints

It’s important to remember the basics of joint protection when working in the garden.  Try to avoid heavy lifting by carrying smaller loads rather than one big load, or use a cart with wheels to transport heavier items.  If you have friends or family available to help, delegate the more challenging tasks to them.  For suggestions on how to reduce the strain from lifting, visit the National Health Service’s Safe Lifting Tips.
 

Further resources from Thrive – Carry On Gardening:
Gardening When You Can’t Bend Easily
Gardening When You Have a Weak Grip
Gardening Sitting Down and From a Wheelchair
 

Content created with expert advice from:

Ilene Cohen Ackerman, OT Reg. (Ont.)
Occupational Therapist and Clinical Practice Lead, Arthritis Society