Re-Leaf from Raking Pain
This time of year signals not only the lowering of temperatures and seemingly shorter daytime hours. As the season's name implies, fall is when conveniently the leaves from the trees fall to the ground, covering the lawn in a colourful sheet. And while it may look pretty, sadly the leaves need to be raked up before the snow flies.
For many of us, this is only a fall ritual, meaning the last time any of us put in any serious time raking was LAST October. And while you may have been diligent over the past year to keep up with your health & fitness goals, raking typically uses brand new muscles and new body postures than you are typically used to, predisposing you to injury. Most people will suffer from what we call 'Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness' (DOMS) after raking, simply from using new muscles we haven't found in a while- you can think of this as the 'muscle-hurt' you might feel after doing those bicep curls in the gym after a 3 month layoff. While DOMS isn't serious, it can be irritating because of the sore muscles that speak their mind with every movement you make.
While DOMS after raking can be quite common, more problematic injuries can occur while raking, particularly to the low back, which could result in more significant physical impairments (like time off work, in one of the worst case scenarios). While most low back pain suffered as a result of raking leaves (or doing other activities around the yard to clean up for winter) is mechanical in nature (meaning it is primarily the joints and muscles of the low back that are irritated and not moving as they typically should), the good news is that it should resolve on its own in about 8 weeks time (or even FASTER with chiropractic care!), the even better news is that most of these episodes of low back pain can be prevented entirely by following the following tips!
Prior to Raking
WARM UP! While it might seem as though raking is a chore, raking is ALSO a physical activity, so it should be treated as such! Warmup should focus on the larger muscle groups in the body that will be used for raking, like the shoulders, low back, and legs. A nice simple warm-up can be found here: http://www.straightenupalberta.com/ieadmin/files/Adult_program.pdf It should take about 3 minutes to complete but will help ensure the appropriate muscles are adequately warmed up prior to raking!
If you already have pre-existing low back pain, consider getting a family member or neighbour to help you out! Remember, many hands make light work!
Use a rake that is appropriately weighted for your strength, and one that can appropriately withstand the job you are doing. Using too heavy of a rake adds extra stress to your spine and to the rest of your body.
Dress appropriately. This can help ensure your muscles stay warm throughout raking.
Work in intervals. After every 25 minutes of work, take a 5 minute break so you can catch your breath, straighten up, and take a sip of water (Remember, staying hydrated is key to ensuring your body can function at its best!).
Maintain a NEUTRAL spine while raking. This means not bending too far forward from the back (you can bend at the hips instead!). Our spine is far weaker and more susceptible to injury when we maintain a forward flexed position.
Hold the rake handle close to your torso. By holding the handle close to your torso, you can ensure you aren't reaching too far with your hands or bending too far forward with your low back. Remember, keep that neutral spine!
Stagger your feet. Have one foot ahead of the other just slightly to allow you to 'rock' back and forth on your feet without moving your spine out of neutral.
Move your feet. Once you've raked the area you are standing in, move your feet to a new position to prevent you from reaching too far.
Switch your hand grip. Most of us have a side we prefer to hold the rake on, but try switching up the grip to even out the stress on your shoulders, hands and wrists.
Only lift what you can carry! When putting leaves into a bag, take comfortable handfuls to fill the bag. And only the fill the bag to a weight that you can then lift and carry comfortably. Leaves that are wetter will also be heavier, so take this into account!
Lift from the Hips! After you've spent all this time maintaining a neutral spine to squat down to pick up the leaves or the bag, it's important to maintain the neutral spine as we lift as well! This means squeezing your core muscles (abdominal muscles) to ensure your core is activated (this helps protect our low back), and using your Glutes (Butt muscles) to help you stand up (you can think of squeezing a toonie between your butt cheeks as you do this!)
Move your Feet! Just as you were moving your feet to rake the leaves into a pile, move your feet to get into position to pick those leaves up off the ground
In this photo, look how she is bending at her hips and knees, while keeping a neutral spine. As she stands up, her back is staying straight the whole time! This is so important for keeping our backs health!
Cool Down! Because raking is physical activity, take a few minutes to complete a cool down (this can be the same as your warm-up, just a little less intense!)
Re-Hydrate. Remember, with any physical activity we are losing body water through sweat and respiration, so after we are finished it is important we treat our bodies right and re-hydrate! Typically the goal is to try and consume about as much water as was lost during physical activity. But, since that is often hard to judge, ensuring you consume 2L of water daily will help ensure you are adequately hydrated!
And remember, prior to starting any physical activity program it is always a good idea to consult your health care practitioner for their advice!