In observance of National Spinal Health Month (October), physicians at the Cooper Bone and Joint Institute offer these precautionary tips to help you protect your back from pain or injury while working in the yard this fall.
Raking is a physically taxing chore that requires proper body mechanics to minimize the risk of musculoskeletal injury. Here’s what you need to keep in mind:
- Before you begin your task, warm up as you would for any athletic activity. A brisk walk and/or stretching exercises can help loosen tight muscles and prevent low-back strain.
- Have the right equipment. Use a properly sized rake for your height and strength; wear shoes with skid-resistant soles to minimize the risk of falling; and wear gloves to help prevent blisters on your hands.
- While raking, position your legs in a scissor stance and regularly alternate position. Rake with your right foot forward and your left foot back, then reverse, placing your left foot forward and your right foot back. Keep reversing your leg position at regular intervals throughout the process to avoid excessive strain on one side of your body.
- Vary your arm movement and hand position while raking. If you’ve been pulling the rake from left to right, change direction after a while. By regularly varying the direction in which you pull the rake (from left to right or right to left), you’re making sure that one side of your body isn’t doing most of the work.
- Avoid twisting your body and over-extending your reach while raking. Use your legs to change direction rather than twisting from your waist and back. Position yourself so that the task is in front of you and not off to the sides where you have to twist to reach. Throwing leaves over your shoulder or to the side while raking involves twisting movement that can overly strain the muscles in your back. Also be sure not to over-extend your reach. Keep your task at a comfortable arm’s length.
- Bend and lift correctly. Do not bend from the waist and then twist, reach and lift. Instead, stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, tighten your abdominal muscles and then squat – bending at the hip and knee – close to the object in front of you. Use your legs and core muscles (abdominals) to lift, keeping the load close to your body. By bending from your knees and hips, and keeping your back straight, your legs and abdomen are doing the work, not your back.
- Avoid over-stuffing bags and dragging or carrying them to the curbside. Instead, use a wheelbarrow to haul the load.
- Take a break every 15 minutes. Raking is an aerobic activity, so frequent breaks are recommended for the infrequent exerciser. Repeating some warm-up and stretch-out exercises during breaks can also be helpful. If you notice you’ve been over-working one area of your body, gently stretch out that area. As with any form of strenuous exercise, be sure to drink plenty of fluids to combat dehydration.
- Switch tasks every half-hour or so. If possible, switch to another yard chore. Try planting a few bulbs, weeding, pruning or trimming for a while, and then resume raking. Even trained athletes switch exercises to prevent over-work in one area of the body.
- When you’re finished, relax, breathe deeply and stretch again. Gentle muscle-stretching can help relieve tension in the muscles. If your joints feel sore afterwards, apply ice to the affected area.