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Protect Your Back During Spring Yard Work: Tips From a Chiropractor

By Dr. Molly Casey

Protect Your Back While Doing Yard Work: Tips From a Chiropractor

Overall health and wellness in one’s life includes a lot of maintenance work around the house. That maintenance can kick into overdrive this time of year as many households engage in a good spring cleaning on the inside and then yard work on the outside.

Although plenty of folks participate in the work, few pay attention until it’s too late. If these things are not done correctly, they can wreak havoc on your body. As you head outside to do your yard work, remember these guidelines to help you and your body make it through the spring cleaning routine as healthily and comfortably as possible.

General Tips For Success

Above all else, safety first. I can’t tell you how many horror stories patients have told me after weekends of doing yard work that led to discomfort and injury that could have been totally avoided simply by putting the basics of safety first. It may be dorky, but wouldn’t you rather be safe? It only takes one time to permanently affect the rest of your life. So be safe first.

Protective gear - Use safety glasses while using motorized tools (weed whackers, mowers, leaf blowers) and earmuffs if the machine is noisy. This gear can usually be purchased for less than $15-$20 so it shouldn’t break the bank. However, not using these items could result in much more expensive medical bills.

Proper shoes - There are two components to proper shoe wear that are overlooked. The first is simple protection of the foot from the tools and work that’s being done. For example, closed toe shoes with a non-slip sole -- instead of sandals -- will protect from cuts whether it be from tools or wood chips or rocks that can fly through machinery; such shoes can also help prevent slipping. The second component is support and comfort. Choosing a shoe that has good arch support and is a proper fit will aid the body while standing for sustained periods and supporting the foot in proper mechanics during lifting.

Appropriate tools - Before you begin the heavy lifting of your spring clean, plan out your tasks and get the proper tools. Use wheel barrels to transport heavy objects and get proper shovels if doing lots of soil work. Purchase elevated gardening beds to raise plants closer to chest height so you can remain standing; otherwise, buy a stool or gardening bench to use for work that is at hip height or below. Get foam gardening pads to either sit or kneel on when you need to physically be on the ground. Make sure to adjust the tools (grips, straps, guards) for proper ergonomics and comfort if that option is available.

How to Protect Your Back

Yard work goes beyond the leg muscles and core; it requires you to use all sorts of muscles and joints you may not be aware of or very familiar with. There are preventative measures that you can take that will help keep you safe and working as long as possible in the process.

Warm up - it’s a simple practice that goes a long way toward protecting your body through the process of activity. Spend a few minutes prior to going outside to warm up the muscles, increase blood flow, and get your body ready for the activity; it’s not unlike preparing for an athletic event. As always, if you experience any pain or discomfort, discontinue immediately; this may be a sign to consult with your local chiropractor.

  • Stretch 1 - Stand straight up, arms at your side, then bring them in a wide sweeping motion above your head to the sky while inhaling. Exhale, release, and fold toward the floor; repeat this five times.
  • Stretch 2 - For gentle air squats, lower yourself to the seated position and rise back up; do this five times.
  • Stretch 3 - Lie on your back flat on the floor, bring your knees to your chest and let them fall to one side; hold the position for five seconds, then bring them back to center and let them fall to the other side; hold for five seconds.

Posture and form matter - Using good posture and proper lifting techniques throughout your yard work session will give you the best chance to complete it and still feel good. Poor posture puts undue strains on muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons. Improper form while lifting puts you at risk for further and more severe injuries.

Practice posture - Things to think about regarding good posture include an exercise in which you stand while pretending you have a string pulling you up from the top of your head, shoulder blades are rolled down and back. When you breathe, don’t just fill your lungs; bring the breath deep into your belly.

Your gym exercises that strengthen the core should be brought into your proper lifting techniques. Keep your core and stomach muscles tight, bend at the knees not the waist, and use the muscles of the legs to lift yourself while pretending you’re pushing the floor away from you. Keep the weight close to your body. There’s a reason for the adage “Lift with your legs, not your waist.”

Pay Attention

Throughout your entire yard work session, pay attention. Pay attention to the total time you plan to be outside working; don’t do eight-hour work sessions if you have a hard time making it through one hour at the gym during your normal daily activities. Be balanced in your overall approach. Pay attention to the time you spend in specific activities and avoid staying in any one position for too long or continuing with repetitive motions for prolonged periods. For example, if one task requires kneeling, work on it for an hour but stand up and take breaks every 10-15 minutes. Make sure to take breaks throughout the project as well.

Think before you move. Simply be mindful. Through so much of life we get up quickly without much thought, turn, and lift without paying any mind to the situation; this is when injuries often occur. Simply pay more attention to the movements you are making and this will go a long way toward preventing injuries and keeping you feeling good.

Don’t forget the time in the sun, heat and water. Pay attention to make sure you’re not getting sunburned or too hot overall. Have water with you throughout the whole day and drink it! Lastly, if you have pain at some point -- stop, switch positions, assess as objectively as you can if it is wise to keep going to another task or with different body mechanics, or if you need to stop. And then follow through. There’s no crime in stopping if you’re doing damage to yourself.

When You’re Done

Don’t forget what you need to do immediately following your yard work session because it is also important. Spend 10 minutes gently moving and stretching. Use ice if you feel you have either strained joints or muscles a bit more than usual, or if you feel it would simply feel good and provide a little comfort and relaxation. See your chiropractor regardless of how you feel.

Why is the chiropractor so important? The majority of the nervous system has no ability to perceive and transmit pain because it is too busy focused on other life-sustaining functions. This means that using the presence of pain (or lack thereof) as the only indicator of how healthy you are or the perceived levels of joint functioning is not a great idea. After asking our body to perform more significant tasks like a weekend of yard work sessions, it is a wise idea to have a doctor of chiropractic assess how well or or unwell your spine is moving and adjust it, if necessary. Doing so will also help you to maintain the rest of your daily life activities as you move through your week.

Not everyone likes spring cleaning, and not everyone likes yard work, and not everyone likes it at the same time. But there is a way through it so that the activity you’re putting into it -- using muscles that aren’t typically used during your regular routine -- doesn’t send you to the sidelines as the weather warms and you can take advantage of that yard.

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