Has anyone else noticed that when it comes time to rake leaves, there appears to be way more leaves in the yard in proportion to the number of trees you actually have? For those of you who don’t have any trees but still find yourself raking up a significant bounty, this can seem even more puzzling or even down right frustrating. Well here’s a fact that will make having to rake those extra leaves this season, no matter where they come from, a much easier pill to swallow. The Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines recommends, that in order to stay healthy adults 18-64 years of age and older are to do at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day, and raking the lawn is included in the list of activities that count toward this extremely important goal. So, in addition to having a tidy yard and collecting valuable compost material, studies show that you are also helping to reduce your risk of:
- Overweight and obesity
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
- Certain types of cancer
- Premature death
- Mental health (morale and self-esteem)
Now that we’ve determined working in your yard and garden can undoubtedly benefit your health and well-being, here are a few tips to help keep your fall harvest this year safe and injury free.
Tip # 1: Warm up- Whether you work it into your schedule before you head out the door, or you incorporate it into a walk through your yard and garden before you hit the ground running, it’s never a bad idea to give your body a heads up as to what you have in store for it. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Something as simple as marching with your knees high to warm up your lower body, followed by a few big arm circles to loosen your upper body can go a long way in prepping your major joints and muscles for the task ahead. Of course you may need to hold onto a chair or railing for support with balance, if you are having challenges of this nature.
Tip # 2: Match your tools to your task- Ensure handles are long enough for you to avoid awkward and unnecessary bending and twisting at the waist. Use gloves. Padded gloves are even better, as they help to lessen the impact that digging, cutting or trowelling can cause to your hands. Go even further toward protecting the joints in your hands, by selecting tools with thicker handles to lessen the force gripping imposes on them. You can even create a DIY (do-it-yourself) ergonomic handle for any of your current gardening tools, by purchasing varied lengths of pipe insulation from your local hardware store. Just apply it wherever you need a bit of extra support with a non-slip type tape for improved handling. Using a foam pad is a great way to reduce pressure on your knees while kneeling, if this is a position that is tolerable for you. However, a small stool works even better if you have longer periods of low level work like weeding to tend to. Larger digging tasks can often require significantly more force, especially if your ground has a high proportion of clay in it like ours. It’s best to get yourself a pair of firm soled garden boots, with steel shanked boots being the ideal option. This helps to reduce the impact that repetitive use of a garden spade or fork can impose on your feet. After all, not paying attention to the safety of your feet now, can impact a lot more than your functioning as a gardener in the long run.
Tip # 3: Use proper body mechanics- Lifting heavy pails of potatoes or moving those planters still full of soil can actually be considered a great resistance workout if done right, provided you don’t have any pre-existing injuries or medical conditions to take into consideration. First off, keep your base of support wide with your feet at least hip width apart, and one slightly ahead of the other. Keep your spine in neutral with shoulder blades pulled back just enough to feel that your muscles are engaged. Lean forward from your hips as if reaching back to sit on an invisible chair while at the same time bending your knees and lowering your upper body still maintained in neutral to reach the object you are lifting. Reaching further back with your hips than forward with your knees, will help guard your knees against unnecessary loading. Remember to counterbalance with the forward lean of your upper body to ensure stability and control. Also, as mentioned in my last blog post, don’t forget to exhale as you apply effort. Not only does this help you avoid holding your breath, but it also helps engage more deep core muscle support to protect your spine. Position yourself as close in front of the object you are lifting as possible. This reduces the amount of force transmitted through your low back. You’ll also want to keep this close proximity principle in mind when doing tasks like raking or hoeing. Avoiding extended periods of reaching beyond arms-length by keeping your task in front of you, not only increases your chances of lasting the day, but also improve your chances of building endurance to last the rest of the season. Low level work is no different. When it comes to picking weeds or pulling produce, having a choice between kneeling, ½ kneeling, crouching, squatting, and sitting leaves you with enough possibilities that there is sure to be a position that can keep you close to your task no matter what your level of mobility. Having a chair designated for use in the garden, is another great option to assist you in getting up and down into some of these positions if you find this to be challenging. Admittedly, my next point is one that I have to remind myself of most often. Don’t get so focused on the weeds that you forget to notice the alignment of your neck. After all, your garden hose wouldn’t function properly for very long with a kink in it, so why would you expect your neck to? Frequent posture checks, taking the time to stop and smell the flowers, can be just as therapeutic for your mind as it is for your body.
Tip # 4: Pace and vary tasks- If you’ve been gardening on a regular schedule all summer, you may be able to extend the amount of time you spend in it during harvest, similar to when you’ve trained to compete in a particular sport. However, if you are often a weekend warrior gardener like myself, it is even more important to take regular breaks and change your position and task often. You’ll be giving one set of joints and muscles a chance to recuperate, while at the same time giving others a chance to catch up, which in turn creates balance. Smaller, more frequently used muscles in the forearms, hands and even shoulders are susceptible to repetitive strain injuries. By adding in more frequent trips to the compost, to the garden shed or even to your water bottle, you are engaging larger muscle groups in your hips and legs more often. This will assist in improving circulation to those smaller muscles, which reduces your risk of overuse injuries.
Tip # 5: Hydrate- Perhaps the temperatures aren’t quite as hot as July, but don’t forget that digging and raking can expend a lot of energy, so keep yourself hydrated. Dr. Julian Seifter, a kidney specialist and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School indicates that “older people don’t sense thirst as much as they did when they were younger, and that could be a problem if they’re on a medication that may cause fluid loss, such as a diuretic.” (2) I like to keep my water bottle handy on the deck, to remind myself that it’s time top up often.
Tip # 6: Stretch- Finish off your yard and garden workout strong with some much deserved stretches. Your day is done, and not only do you see the fruits of your labour, but you can also feel them. The muscle soreness you are feeling is hopefully just enough to let you know that you have done your body some good. Reward yourself with some stretches that include your upper and lower back, your hips and knees, as well as your shoulders and neck. My favorites are the cat and cow on all fours, the single and double knee to chest and single straight leg stretches in lying, the figure 4 stretch for your hips in sitting, the quadriceps and calf stretches near a support in standing, the chest stretch in the doorway or a corner and finally a sitting tall ear to shoulder stretch. I’ll hold each stretch for 30 seconds to where I feel a comfortable pull, repeating twice if I have the time. Over the years I’ve found these stretches extremely beneficial in helping to minimize my post gardening muscle soreness and maintain my current level of flexibility. Of course a good soak in a hot tub following a day of digging in the dirt is always an added treat if you have that option. Don’t forget to always check with your medical health care provider before starting any new activity, or before contemplating a soak in the hot tub if you have any underlying medical conditions. Also, stretches that work best for one person, may not be the ones that are most appropriate for your state of health.
To help you set up a program that is specific to your needs, feel free to drop by the clinic and book an appointment with any one of our therapists. You can be sure that we will do our best to fit you with a program that’s right for you. Happy harvest everyone!
~ Elizabeth Stefanyshyn-Alonso PT
(1) Canadian Physical Activity Guidelines
(2) How much water should you drink?
(3) The Diaphragm/Pelvic Floor Piston for Adult Populations: Part One Julie Wiebe, PT, MPT,