In Michigan, May is usually the time that most of us are ready to get out into our yards and garages to do some spring cleaning. You have all the right tools for your project but are you prepared physically? In our excitement to make things shine once again we often tend to over-do-it and injure ourselves.

Fortunately, you can lessen your risk of injury before you go down the garden path by making sure you are using proper form while doing spring clean- up. One of the most important things you can do to protect your back and neck is to always make sure you use good body mechanics.

Everyone has heard “bend with your knees and not at your waist” but here are just a few additional ideas to add to your list.

  1. Start with a warm-up. If you are physically unconditioned this is really important. Think of your yard work like a workout. What’s the first thing you do before you begin a run? Warm-up right? So go for a light walk, a slow bike ride, or do an exercise class before jumping out into the yard right after breakfast. Warming up the muscles and joints so they are not cold will help prevent injury. Try 10-15 minutes of low intensity movement before you grab that rake.
  2. If you need to lift something heavy (like those incredibly awkward lawn bags), keep the item as close to your body as possible. Always lift straight up using your legs exhaling while you lift. Exhaling during exertion can lower disc pressure helping to protect them from herniation. Avoid twisting while you lift. Twisting can damage the discs in your back, so turn your whole body toward the load before lifting or setting an item down and bend with your knees to lower it- just like you did to lift. Use a cart to take loads long distances.
  3. If you will be spreading mulch or dirt. Take smaller loads in your wheelbarrow. Instead of bending over to spread the load, use a small “manageable” rake or sit down to distribute it. Using tools that are too big for you can strain muscles. There are numerous ergonomic tools available now at most garden centers. Try on your tools for size and comfort.
  4. If planting flowers -don’t squat. This can put a lot of pressure on your knees and back.  Sit on a pad or small garden stool keeping your back in good alignment facing what you are doing. Hold in your abdominals and lengthen your spine. Don’t lean if something is out of your reach. Just get up and reposition yourself closer. Prolonged awkward positions can cause backs to strain unnecessarily.
  5. When raking up yard debris, soften your knees so that they are not locked, exhale as you pull the rake towards you holding in your abdominals. Make the movement come from your abdominals and not just your arms. Switch arms every now and then too to keep arm strain to a minimum.
  6. If cleaning or trimming something overhead. Be aware and keep your head and neck in good position. If you need to strain to reach use a steady stool to help you get at a better height. Over-arching your neck can cause pressure on these tiny discs and leave you with a sore neck the next day.
  7. Take care of your hands and wrists. Wear gloves and if you will be trimming with garden trimmers take breaks. Marathon pruning sessions can lead to hand pain and even tendinitis in the hand and wrist. Stretch, and vary your activities giving the small hand muscles a break.
  8. Don’t overdo it. Many injuries happen when you are over tired. Spread out your chores doing a little at a time, especially if you have recurring back problems. If you notice your back is feeling tight, consider this a red flag! It will only get tighter from there. Take a break, lie on a foam roller or stretch over a stability ball OR stop for the day.

FUN FACT: Depending on weight, activity and intensity level, it’s possible to burn anywhere from 250-500 calories and hour. But watch out for signs of strain.

It’s very easy to lose track of time when you are working in the garden, especially if you enjoy it. If you overdid it use an ice pack wrapped in a wet towel for 20 minutes at a time. Take anti-inflammatories for pain and perform your stretching and gentle movement exercises. If pain continues for more than a couple days or if you experience radiating pain, numbness or tingling in your leg or arms, see your physician.

If you can follow these easy tips you can keep your entire body feeling happy all season, get your work done and actually get in a great workout out all at the same time. Happy gardening!!


Donna Gambino is a licensed physical therapist, certified Pilates instructor and fitness author. For more information visit www.infinityhealth.org for fitness classes in your area. NEW CLASSES starting soon !