Maximizing Your Mobility – Fall Into Good Habits This Fall

It seems like our article on taking the pain out of spring cleaning ran just a few weeks ago, but alas, it has been six months since March came and went. Many people think Northern Michigan deserves a mulligan on our summer, and I would have to agree.

The cool, crisp weather brings with it extra work to be done around the house to get ready for winter. Without fail, physical therapists start to see some characteristic injuries associated with autumn cleanup around the first few weeks of October. A few of the most common are back and shoulder injuries from raking leaves, elbow and neck strains from putting away summer deck and lawn furniture, and all sorts of aches and pains from splitting and hauling firewood. The vast majority of these tweaks and strains are caused by one, or a combination, of three issues: impaired flexibility/strength of the body, poor body-mechanics during activity, and not optimizing the work environment.

When it comes to back injuries and chopping wood or raking, a few common issues within the body tend to place more stress on the back. If the range of movement in the hips or mid-back is limited, more pressure is placed on the low back during twisting and bending activities. If the muscles which help with trunk and hip rotation are weak, more stress is placed on the ligaments and tendons, often leading to overuse injuries of these tissues. A great way to reduce your risk of injury when performing yard work is to do a quick five-minute warm-up before you start. The warm-up can be as simple as doing a few stretches or taking a brisk walk around the neighborhood. Since everyone’s flexibility and strengthening needs are different, its best to check with a physical therapist to determine where your specific trouble areas are lurking.

Besides using good body-mechanics and keeping your body strong and flexible, it is important to make sure that your work environment is as safe as it can be. Controlling the work environment entails making sure the area you are working in is free of hazards, not spending excessive amounts of time on one specific movement or job, and making sure your equipment is in good working order. The right equipment is especially important. It is less stressful on the shoulders and back to drag a rake with metal tines vs. plastic ones. Instead of raking an entire yard and lifting the leaves to haul away in a wheel barrow, it might be easier to rake them onto a tarp and drag them to your disposal area, thereby eliminating the bending and lifting. Even better than that, see if there is a willing neighbor or loved one to help share the workload.

Finding an easier way to do a job reminds me of a story from a few weeks ago that illustrates this point. I was at my parents’ cabin and decided to help my dad chop up some trees. He was away for a few hours, so I thought I’d surprise him by saving him a few hours of work. Just for fun, I was keeping track of the time it took me to cut through some similarly-sized trees with a large axe. I spent about an hour swinging away, and on average, it took about 14-16 minutes to get through each log. My dad came home and found me working and asked to see the axe I was using. He smiled in the way parents often do, and said to take a break and that he’d be back in a minute. He returned with the axe and handed it back to me so I could keep cutting. The next tree I cut through took six minutes. It was the same species of tree, and the same size as the others. My dad’s smile brought back a favorite saying of his: “get the right tool for the job.” I can now attest that splitting wood with a sharp axe is vastly superior to using a dull one. Live and learn.

Here are some guidelines to stay safe during your fall cleanup chores:

Exercise: Your body needs to be strong and flexible enough to do the things you’re asking it to do. If a lot of repetitive pulling or twisting activities are on your list this fall, you should be getting started on an exercise program which incorporates those movements as soon as possible.

Chunk It: Break up large tasks into smaller ones. Instead of spending two-three hours raking then three-four hours splitting wood, it would be better to alternate between the two ever hour or so. You should also be sitting down for a 20-30 minute break every two-three hours or so to give your joints and muscles a chance to rest for short periods throughout the day.

Tool Time: Use the right tool for the right job. There are lots of ergonomically-designed yard tools on the market now, so a trip to Ace Hardware should be on your list if you’re looking for things like larger-handled trowels to reduce elbow strain, or a bench to sit on when planting flowers.

Listen to your body: If you start feeling pain, achiness, or noticeable fatigue in your joints or muscles, don’t push through it. Doing so would be a great way to ensure a trip to your physical therapist or doctor. If you’re not sure what type of pain to push through, see our column in the News-Review from March 4 for more info.

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