With fall here and winter fast approaching, a number of potential hazards are lurking in your yard. Depending on where you live, you might need to be on the lookout for bears stocking up before hibernation. For most of us, though, the bigger risk is winter yard work and back pain.
Unless you’re a professional landscaper or gardener, gardening and yard work typically involve tasks that put unusual demands on the body. In winter, or on colder fall days, shoveling snow or raking leaves can quickly lead to muscle strain and back pain, as well as heart attacks!
Here are some top tips for avoiding injury and back pain from winter yard work.
Winter Yard Work and Back Pain – 7 top tips for back health
1. Start out slow
While there’s a certain satisfaction to spending a few hours raking up all the leaves in the yard, the likelihood of back pain from winter yard work increases when placing high demands on muscles unused to such strain. The same is true for gardening and back pain after digging over a flower bed or pruning a whole host of fruit trees.
Starting out slow and doing fifteen minutes or half an hour of work each day, instead of four hours on a Sunday, can make the difference between a healthy, happy back and crippling back pain on Monday morning. It’s also a good idea to start out slow when doing tasks such as weeding or carrying buckets of water.
2. Use different muscles
Most of us have felt pain following a vigorous full-day hike or a long stretch of cycling. We quickly learn that varying our leisure activities can help keep muscle strain and pain at bay. The same is true for back pain from winter yard work.
By varying your yard tasks and using different muscles each day, you can avoid overuse injury. For example, spend ten minutes raking leaves one day and spend ten minutes the next day repotting herbs to move plants indoors. The next day, alternate turning your compost or digging with sorting and washing old plant pots to put into storage.
3. Avoid twisting
One of the key reasons gardening, winter yard work and back pain are connected is that people tend to twist when digging or shoveling snow or leaves. Instead, keep the spade or shovel in front of you and your posture strong by engaging your core muscles. That way, you’re less likely to twist and hurt your back.
With your shoulders and hips square on to whatever you intend to lift, bend at your hips rather than your lower back. Bend your knees and use your leg muscles to lift, keeping your back straight and your core muscles engaged.
If shoveling snow, keep your hands about twelve inches apart on the handle and carry the snow to wherever it is being moved, rather than twisting and tossing it. When walking, keep the weight as close as possible to your body to minimize strain on your arms and back.
4. Stretch and warm up
As we mentioned above, cold weather is a prime culprit for back pain related to gardening and yard work. This is because cooler muscles are more prone to injury.
Minimize your risk of injury by wrapping up warm and doing some gentle stretches or going for a short walk before doing yard work. This helps to get your blood flowing to your muscles. And, don’t forget to warm down as well. That way, your muscles are less likely to seize up in the cold as soon as you stop moving.
5. Stay hydrated and nourished
Staying hydrated and eating well can help reduce your risk of injury from winter yard work. Your muscles need water and fuel in order to function properly. This means it’s smart to treat yard work like a gym session and pay attention to how you’re feeding your muscles.
Remember, you can burn hundreds of calories when gardening or carrying out winter yard work and back pain is much more likely when muscles lack the right fuel or are dehydrated. Make sure to eat a diet full of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. This will provide you with enough protein, carbohydrate, healthy fats, and antioxidants to keep your muscles functioning properly.
6. Choose your tools wisely and use them wisely
When shoveling snow it pays to have the right equipment. An ergonomic shovel is one with a curved handle or an adjustable handle. This helps to minimize bending, so you just need to bend a little at the knees and arch your back slightly when the shovel is on the ground.
Choose a lighter, plastic blade so as to reduce how much weight you’re having to lift. And, it should go without saying, replace any damaged equipment that is liable to cause you injury.
7. Ask for help
Every year there are hundreds of heart attacks and other injuries related to shoveling snow. This is because people with poor cardiovascular health or poor overall health often fail to realize just how intense a workout this task can be.
If you have a medical issue that prevents you from doing certain types of moderate to intense exercise, bear this in mind when contemplating shoveling snow or raking leaves. This includes spine conditions such as spinal stenosis, which is a key reason why winter yard work and back pain often coincide.
If in doubt, hire someone to do the more strenuous yard work or barter with a more robust neighbor. Trading a little babysitting time or dog walking for help with back-breaking yard work is a smart investment.