For many nature lovers, spring means preparing and planting the flower beds and vegetable patches, cleaning up the yard, and maybe even putting in some trees or shrubs. Spread over a few days, such activity is invigorating and satisfies the soul. But for people with time constraints who need to work fast, overhauling their small acreage of green over a single weekend invariably results in back and neck pain by Sunday night.
Some easy techniques will do wonders for your spine when you perform the following warm-weather tasks.
1. Raking and hoeing. What makes raking and hoeing potentially harmful is both actions make the body work in a one-sided way. When they rake, people predominantly use one arm and tend to fold in one side of their body. Try to engage both sides of your body when performing the motion. Hoeing puts more strain on one arm and hand.
Although it may feel awkward at first, switching sides every few minutes when you rake and hoe will help prevent favoring one side of your body. Don't reach out with your hoe or rake as though you were casting with a fishing pole because such stretches may cause more stress on your lower back muscles and set off other problems. Instead, walk to the exact spot on your plot of land that will allow you to perform shorter strokes with your tools.
Finally, if you have a lot of square footage to work on, take a break every 20 minutes by resting and taking in liquids, or even switching to another type of activity.
2. Digging and shovelling . Whether you're digging a hole or shoveling compost into a wheelbarrow, the key to avoiding back injury is to perform the work slowly and not overload the shovel or wheelbarrow.
Wear heavy-duty boots so you can step down hard onto the shovel, which lets your body weight do much of the work. Bend your knees when lifting the shovel so you're not in a bent-over position, which may strain your back. This stance will allow those big muscles in your legs and buttocks do the heavy lifting.
If your tasks do include shovelling an especially heavy load, such as gravel or soil, use the magic of physics to lighten your load. After you've filled up the shovel blade, picture the shovel as a seesaw, with your thigh as the seesaw's fulcrum. Place the handle of the shovel onto your thigh about three quarters of the way down, and then push down on the top of the handle to flip the contents into a wheelbarrow or bucket.
3. Mowing. If hiring a lawn service is not an option, or your kids can't be talked into helping out, the next best thing is using a riding mower. Make sure the model you choose has a comfortable sitting area -- using a boat cushion as a substitute often does the trick -- because too much bouncing on a bad seat can wreck your back. Mowing slowly will do a better job on the lawn, typically by helping diminish any unevenness in the terrain.
If a push mower is all that's available, opt for one that's self-propelled, which reduces strain going up hills and around curves. But whether your mower is motorized or not, limit back-and-forth yanking. Push it -- an action better for your back -- rather than pull it and, as with the hoe and rake, stay close to your tool to avoid overreaching.
4. Trimming and weed whacking. Because of their inherently poor designs, trimmers and weed whackers make users hold these tools in front of their bodies. Weight that's positioned in front of you is typically 10 to 15 times heavier than the weight of the object itself, which makes pushing either of these tools an ordeal.
Leaning forward -- which creates 200 pounds of additional pressure per square inch on the discs of your spine -- only compounds the problem. Because of this type of liability, use the shoulder strap that may come with the trimmer, and find ways to eliminate the need for trimming altogether. Strategic ornamentation, like stone walls or flower gardens, and mulching may allow you to get rid of your trimmer for good.
A final tip: Before beginning any big outdoor project, be it stacking firewood, moving patio furniture, or lugging grilling equipment out of the garage, take a few minutes to physically prepare. Loosen up by stretching to warm up your muscles, which reduces the likelihood of injury. Also, if something hurts, stop. Don't work through the pain. You'll be caring for your gardens, pool, and outdoor equipment over the next several months. Your back deserves the same level of care.
Dr. Jay M. Lipoff is a chiropractor, certified fitness trainer, educator, and nationally recognized expert in spinal injury prevention. He's the author of Back at Your Best: Balancing the Demands of Life With the Needs of Your Body, and an executive board member of the ICA Council of Fitness and Health Sports Science. Dr. Lipoff also hosts the radio segment called "Back at Your Best in 5 Minutes or Less" on Mix 96.1 WVLF-FM on Fridays at 8:20 a.m.