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Gardening with axial SpA (AS)

Gardening can be a great way of getting outside and being active. I recommend it as a way to keep strong and mobile, as well as help your mental health. 

Plan Your Activities

As with any new activity, it’s important to start gradually and build up over time as your strength and fitness improves. I recommend looking at the different jobs you have around the garden and alternate two or three activities that affect different areas of the body.

For example, spend ten minutes kneeling and weeding, ten minutes in the greenhouse potting plants on a table and ten minutes pruning higher plants. If you do feel any aches or pains, stop and switch to another activity that will rest that area or take a 20 minute break.

Pace Yourself

Always assess an activity before doing it and be honest with yourself. If you have a niggling feeling at the back of your mind that it’s too much for one person, either wait until you can get someone to help or break it down into smaller tasks over a number of days.

I know it’s easy to get out there and want to get everything done (especially as the tasks can seem endless!). I’ve certainly been guilty in the past of pushing through some low back pain to get some extra weeding finished, then had a severe flare for a week! It’s much better to prevent flares and enjoy your time out in the garden with less effects afterwards.

The Benefits of Gardening: Improving your Mobility

There are lots of movements you do in the garden that can help improve or maintain your mobility, for example:

  • Bending down to weed a border or plant something
  • Reaching forward into a border
  • Pruning plants overhead and tying plants to trellis and canes
  • Digging and hoeing
  • Raking
  • Watering using a hose
  • Walking around the garden

Again, you can mix these activities up so you’re using different areas of your body.

The Benefits of Gardening: Improving your Strength

Plenty of activities gardening involves will naturally improve your strength, for example:

  • Lifting plants and pots
  • Digging and hoeing
  • Watering using a watering can
  • Repeated movements such as planting or weeding
  • Mowing the grass
  • Digging up vegetables

Gardening Safely: Make the Tools Work for You

It’s well worth making adjustments in the garden and using tools to achieve what you’d like with less discomfort. 

Kneeling

For weeding hard to reach areas, use a kneeling pad to keep your knees comfortable. Kneeling pads with handles are perfect. They can give some extra help when you stand up from kneeling and you can also use them as a stool if you’re unable to kneel comfortably. For longer periods of time, it may be more comfortable to use a chair with arms you can push up on to stand up afterwards.

Long Handled Tools

Using tools with longer handles means you don’t have to reach as much, which is especially helpful in deeper borders or when tackling taller plants. Telescopic (adjustable) handles are a bonus because the tool is more versatile and it saves you buying multiple versions.

If you’re able to invest in good quality tools, it can be helpful in the long-term as they are sturdy and more durable. Good quality hoes, forks, spades and cutters use strong materials and sharper edges that will cut through the soil and plants with less effort from you.

Reaching

For harder to reach areas, a simple two-step block with a grab handle can be safer than a ladder. Always have someone there to stabilise the steps and ask for help if you need it.

Lawnmowers

Petrol mowers, although more expensive than corded electric, are easier to use because you don’t have to pull the cord around. However, if you have problems with your shoulders it can be more difficult to start a petrol mower if it has a pull cable. If this is difficult, it may be worth getting a key start petrol mower or an electric mower.

Self-propelled and driven mowers are perfect because all you have to do is steer!

There are lots of brands out there to suit all budgets, so it’s worth shopping around.

Empty the cuttings collector regularly to keep the mower less heavy and easier to manoeuvre.

Lifting and Carrying

The main advice to make lifting and carrying easier is to use a wheelbarrow. It can be helpful to half fill  your wheelbarrow and do more frequent trips. For really heavy items, such as pots and bags of compost, it can be easier to use a sack barrow. As always, ask for help for larger jobs.

Watering

Using a watering can is great to keep your muscles strong. Regular use will increase your ability to lift and carry.

If you find lifting difficult, only half-fill the can and gradually build up as your strength improves. It’s understandable with axial SpA (AS) that how much you can do will vary day to day, so listen to your body and adjust as necessary.

If a watering can is not possible, hoses can be helpful, especially with a fitting that changes the power of the water stream. Use a more powerful setting to reach areas further from you, or awkward to reach areas.

Planting

When preparing and potting plants, use a table so you can work at a neutral height. This is a great activity to do after you’ve spent time bending forward or reaching overhead.

What if you do get an injury?

Generally, aches and pains from gardening will recover on their own with a healthy mixture of rest and gentle movement. Usually it’s a normal amount of aching from exercising and using the muscles and joints. If you experience a flare, use your normal flare care plan to help manage it.

If the flare lasts longer than usual or you experience unusually severe pain, speak to your doctor or local physiotherapist, osteopath or chiropractor for advice.

In summary

It’s important to really listen to your body. Be mindful that some days will be easier than others. Try doing little and often, while gradually building up over time, to keep gardening comfortable for you.

About Zoë

Zoë Clark is an osteopath living with axial SpA (AS). She has written other blog posts for NASS. Zoë spoke at the NASS APPG in January 2020 and appeared on Channel 5 News to highlight delays to diagnosis.

Zoë has joined the  joining NASS team to help you keep active and feeling well during this difficult time of isolation.

Zoë is available on the Helpline each day, so if you’d like to have a chat then please get in touch and we can arrange a call on 020 8741 1515 or you can email zoe@nass.co.uk.

Zoë will be running regular self care sessions over Spring 2020 so do keep an eye on on the NASS Facebook page for her sessions.