Rethinking yardwork to take care of your body

In the Pacific Northwest, spring is the vacation-like feel that comes with along overdue blue sky

By Holly Pennington, PT, DPT/Outpatient Physical Therapy

One thing I love about the scarcity of sunny days in a Pacific Northwest spring is the vacation-like feel that comes with a long overdue blue sky. In my community, sidewalks become steady streams of smiling walkers on their way to the town center. Playground benches hold unhurried parents who happily agree to a child’s request for ten more minutes. Traffic slows for clusters of kids taking over the streets with their bikes and scooters. On a sunny day in May, homework, email and bedtime wait. With the first dry days of spring comes a permission slip to abandon routines and get outside.

Then, after a few days of hitting 65 degrees, the novelty wears off and pressure to make the most of the weather — in more productive ways — sets in. For many of us, this means yard work.

Returning to a neglected yard after a season (or two or three…) spent trying to stay dry means facing hours of physical work. Combine this with the weather app that says tomorrow is the only sunny day out of the next ten, and the needs of our grass, trees and gardens suddenly seem more urgent. Making the most of a sunny day changes from prioritizing leisure to feeling pressured to get as much done outside as possible.

This is where we get into trouble. When our yard work plans revolve around the weather instead of our bodies, we tend to overdo it. Instead of a manicured yard, we can end up with back, shoulder, elbow or knee pain when the spring rains return.

However, most yard work-related injuries can be avoided with preparation, planning and a healthy dose of optimism that the sun will indeed return another day. So, before you head outside to make the most of our next warm day, here’s a few ways to rethink your yard work:

Yard Work Is Exercise

If you would not go out and run for an hour without a break, rethink your plans to haul dirt or lay down mulch for an hour straight. Heavy yard work, such as moving rocks and dirt or mulching, can burn 400-600 calories per hour. This is equivalent to a six-mile run. If you do not engage in aerobic exercise or weightlifting regularly, divide your yard work into smaller segments of 15-20 minutes at a time. Stop to rest, stretch and take inventory of how your body feels before returning to the job. Gardening and mowing count as exercise, too — each of these activities expends up to 400 calories per hour.

Do you feel like you have no time for a break? This is where the optimism comes in: you may need to spread your work out over a few days or weeks to take care of your body, so you must believe in the sun’s return.

Your Body Likes Change

Just like your neck and back get stiff and sore after sitting in front of a computer all day, your body does not like staying in the same position while doing yard work. For example, if you need to kneel as you work in the garden, rather than kneeling on both knees the entire time, try varying your position by kneeling on one knee with the other foot on the ground and switching sides every few minutes. Instead of always carrying light to moderate loads, use a cart or wheelbarrow intermittently to give your upper body a rest. Rather than weeding the garden all at once, break up the task by switching to mowing. The more you vary both the type of yard work you do and how you do it, the better your body will respond.

Prioritize Your Spine

If you only pay attention to one part of your body throughout yard work, choose your spine. Maintaining the natural curve of your spine at all times – as you lift, carry, squat, pull weeds, reach overhead, climb a ladder or push a wheelbarrow – will help prevent injuries not only in your back and neck, but also in your extremities. To do this, keep loads close to your body and bend at your hips (not your back) when squatting and lifting. When working overhead, keep your chin tucked as you look up and avoid arching your low back.

Our pristine summer days are coming soon. Set yourself up to enjoy them by rethinking your spring yard work before another rare sunny day arrives.