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Last year-- on a Saturday afternoon-- I noticed my neighbor had raked several piles of leaves in his front yard. Tall yard waste bags were strategically set up near each pile. I cringed as he bent over from the waist repeatedly to transfer armfuls of leaves into the bags.
If my neighbor was only raking up one pile of leaves, I might not have felt concerned. But he had several piles of leaves in the front yard and probably even more in his backyard.
I had two reasons to worry.
The first reason was related to an experience I had roughly a decade earlier. I had knee pain, and in an effort to avoid aggravating my knee pain, I bent forward in a similar way when I did my own yard work-- picking up sticks and weeding. While this protected my knees, it unfortunately left me with another problem: low back pain.
The second reason was related to the scientific research that continues to demonstrate that bending forward stresses the low back. When the back muscles (the ones that move someone from the forward bent position to standing upright) get tired, the ligaments (the tough connective tissue that limits excessive motion) receive extra strain. Initially, they can withstand the extra strain, but eventually they get injured and pain results.
And this happens to healthy people quicker than you might think. In a 2004 study, college-aged men were asked to bend forwards once every 10 seconds for 9 consecutive minutes. The researchers found these healthy volunteers began bending further forwards and their back muscles stopped contracting as well, when they were in this forward bent position. The researchers concluded this was “detrimental to low back health.”
So here are some solutions for safer yard work:
1. Stoop or squat to gather leaves or debris off the ground. Instead of relying primarily on your back muscles, your hip and thigh muscles will carry some of the load. Similar to lifting something with friends, rather than by yourself, your back muscles won’t tire as quickly when your hip and thigh muscles are helping out. Preventing fatigue in your back muscles will decrease the strain on your ligaments and lower your risk for back pain. (Always use your core muscles--the ones that tighten when you inflate a balloon--as you're squatting. This article and this video may help you determine if squatting is safe for you.)
2. Alternate tasks. If you were exercising at the gym, you probably wouldn’t do squats for a consecutive hour. You may do a set of 10 squats, followed by another exercise like push ups, before performing another set of squats. Allow your muscles to recover in a similar way when you’re working in the yard. Squat down and pick up armfuls of leaves 10 times then complete another task-- like standing to trim a few tree branches or raking another pile of leaves-- before your squat to gather more leaves. This takes more time and planning, but it allows your muscles to rest and recover between sets, reduces fatigue, and prevents back pain.
3. Prepare your body. The physical requirements of yard work are different than the tasks most people perform on a typical day. If you haven’t been exercising in this way for the past few months, you may not be strong enough to complete these tasks for an hour or more. Begin by starting with a very short duration of yard work-- well under half of what you estimate will be safe for you. Then, observe how your body feels over the next day or two. If that didn’t cause you pain or problems, then do so again at a slightly longer duration. Gradually progress to the duration required to efficiently complete your yard work.
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