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Yard Work Woes

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

Although our area is known for its mild winters, most of us are still excited when the sun finally emerges and temperatures start to crack into the 60s. When warm breezes blow, when the robins and red-winged blackbirds return from their wintering grounds, when the pale green grass starts to rejuvenate itself – these are the kind of days just meant for spending outside. And fortunately or unfortunately, your yard is anxiously waiting for its annual spring cleaning.

Working in your yard or garden is a healthy activity. It gets you away from the TV and out into the fresh air. It gets you closer to Mother Nature and clears your mind. And it also provides strengthening and flexibility exercise (a 180 lb. person will burn over 300 calories during an hour of general gardening!). However, this peaceful past time is not without its risks. Back, shoulder, and knee pain are often the result of spending the season’s first weekend out gardening, but these yard work woes can be avoided with a few simple precautions.

Although it’s not as strenuous as soccer or basketball, gardening is still a physical activity, and you should prepare for it as such. Before beginning, warm up your muscles with a walk around the block or a few minutes of jumping jacks, then gently stretch. It may seem silly, but this is very important – especially if you’ve spent the winter as a dedicated coach potato. Gardening and yard work require a lot of effort from certain muscle groups (such as the back and rotator cuff), and it’s easy for them to become overwhelmed with all the sudden pushing, pulling, and lifting.

Always pace yourself. You don’t have to get everything done in one day. Yes, I know those marigolds won’t plant themselves, but by taking frequent breaks and changing up your activities throughout the day, you reduce your risk of straining a muscle or experiencing joint pain. Here’s a sample of a good gardening schedule: 20 minutes of weeding or planting, 20 minutes of raking or mowing, 20 minutes of pruning, repairs, or general pick-up, and 20 minutes of rest. Then repeat. Your times and activities may vary, but the general idea is still the same – mix up your tasks to avoid overloading your body with one type of stress.

Good body mechanics are crucial during gardening and yard work. One wrong pull on a stubborn weed or one awkward lift of a heavy soil bag can leave you with weeks of back pain. To allow your body to work where it’s strongest, concentrate on two primary principles – 1) Maintaining a straight back, and 2) Never reaching farther than 12-18 inches from your body. Hunching over your work is a common gardening error that leads to back and neck pain, but keeping a straight back allows your muscles to work properly and reduces stress on the spine. Similarly, your arms get weaker the farther from the body they must reach, so keeping them close to you reduces your risk of injury from activities like pruning, weeding, lifting, or raking. And if you spend a great deal of time working in your yard, you may find it’s worth it to invest in ergonomically-designed tools.

Lastly, always listen to your body. If you’re tired or feel pain, you need to stop and rest. Gently stretch, concentrating on any areas that feel tight. Place ice on any painful areas or areas you feel you may have over-worked. It’s also important to drink plenty of water. Dehydrated muscles lose a great deal of their elasticity and are more susceptible to injury.

Don’t let yard work woes ruin your spring. Keep these tips in mind, and you can look forward to a beautiful, pain-free garden.

Aches and pains shouldn’t keep you from the activities you love. Call 463-0022 today for your FREE Pain Assessment!