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Avoid Back Pain While Leaf Raking

Ah fall, how I love you. The sweaters, the apple cider, the crunching leaves (I will go out of my way to step on them, just to feel like a little kid again). The football, the pumpkins, the yard work.

The yard work? All right, so technically, I don't do any yard work because I live in a condo—thank you, condo association, for raking my leaves.

But leaf raking is one of the typical fall activities, and it's right up there with friendly games of football for "top ways to hurt your back while celebrating the glory that is fall."

Leaf Raking

Where I live (Chicago), October is prime leaf-raking season—followed all too quickly by prime snow shoveling and remembering-how-to-drive-in-the-snow season. Leaf raking is a glorious way to spend one of those shockingly crisp Saturday afternoons.

But you know what's a really not glorious way to spend a Saturday night?

Lying on your couch with shockingly sharp back pain. Watching a Lifetime movie. All because you didn't protect your back when you went out leaf raking.

To avoid that fate, follow these easy tips the next time you head out to rake:

  • Stretch: Hey, leaf raking is a form of exercise; you should make sure that your muscles are ready for the work out. You should think especially about stretching the muscles that support the low back and of course, any muscle involved in the actual raking (eg, arms, shoulders).

    Here are some easy stretches you can do for your low back to prepare for leaf raking. This doesn't have to be an extensive, worthy of a yoga class stretching time. Just take 5 minutes and get your body ready.
  • Posture: Staying hunched over while raking is simply not good for your back. That posture places extra strain on your low back and makes it more likely that you'll end up in the couch-lying, Lifetime-watching scenario.

    Your spine has natural curves that are there to distribute your weight evenly and make it easier for you to move. For example, your low back (lumbar spine) naturally curves inward. Poor raking posture rounds your low back more than it's used to, potentially leading to pain.

    You should maintain those spinal curves while raking—but how do you know if you're doing that? It's not like you can stand perfectly straight while trying to make your yard look perfect (or at least better than your neighbors').

    Here's one way: If you find yourself thinking, "Whoa, my back!" when you take a break from raking, you're probably not using your spine correctly. If that happens mid-raking, do some more stretches.

    And then when you go back to raking, try to avoid that hunched over posture. Rake, straighten up. Rake, straighten up. That should be your plan of attack to avoid putting too much strain on your low back. So many people rake with this pattern: rake, rake, rake, rake, rake, rake, rake, rake…look, I went super fast and made a huge pile! Whoa, my back!

    Rake, straighten up. Rake, straighten up.
    Slow and steady.
  • Twist: There are leaves all around you, so what's the most efficient way to reach all of them? Well, most rakers go for the stand in one place and twist approach, which isn't bad overall.

    But if you twist more with your low back—leaving your feet more or less planted—you're relying too much on your spine. Let your feet and hips do some of the work! When raking, you should rotate by moving from your hips and shuffling your feet.
  • Relax: You do not have to do the entire yard in 15 minutes. In fact, you really should make leaf raking a leisurely activity. Rake for 10 to 15 minutes, and then take a break. On your break, make sure you hydrate—with water. (You can save the hot apple cider for after you're done and you're sitting on the porch admiring your handiwork…which yes, will be covered by leaves again by this time tomorrow.)

    It's important to take raking breaks because such a burst of high-intensity physical activity can lead to injury, especially low back injury.

You can get through fall with a healthy back and a raked yard. If, however, you already have back pain and don't know if you can handle raking, just do what I do: Hire somebody else. That leaves you more time for going to pumpkin patches and corn mazes.

Updated on: 10/02/12
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