Leaf the soreness behind

The trees are starting to change colour, and we know what that means – the crisp scent of fall, the rainbow folliage – and a lot of raking.  You don’t want this chore to set you up for months of back spasms. So here are some tips from the Canadian Physiotherapy Association for raking those leaves without giving yourself a pain in the neck!

Warm Up
Before you start, warm up with a light activity, such as walking and some simple stretches to loosen your muscles and help circulation. Hold all stretches for approximately 20 seconds and repeat 2-3 times each side. Never stretch into a painful position. Here are some stretches you may include:

  • Stretch the muscles on the back of your thigh (hamstring) by propping your heel on a step and slowly leaning forward, feeling the stretch;
  • Next, stretch the muscles in the front of your thighs (quadriceps) by standing, balancing yourself against a wall, chair back or even a tree, and then bending your knee with your hand holding your ankle to pull your heel towards your buttocks;
  • For your upper body, hold your hands together over your head, fings entwined and palms facing outward and lean to each side. Then wrap your arms around yourself in a hug, and rotate your body from side to side as far as you can.

Raking Leaves

  • Use a rake with a bent or side handle, or build up the handle with plastic tubing. This will help keep your wrist in a neutral position and decrease the need for a tight grip on the handle during use;
  • When holding the rake, place one hand at the top of the handle and the other hand down the handle far enough so that your elbow bends just slightly. This way, you can stand up as straight as possible and only use your arms and legs to rake;
  • Step to the side as you rake. This will help you not to overreach with your arms, and your legs will get a little exercise as well. In addition, don’t reach so far away with the rake that it forces you to bend and twist your back;
  • Change your stance as you work. Start raking with one foot forward and the other back, then switch foot positions every few minutes so you’re using your muscles differently;
  • Reverse hand positions regularly while raking. This will help to reduce stress on one side of your trunk, back or arm;
  • Don’t have a rake-a-thon. Take small rest breaks and briefly bend backward placing your hands on the small of your back. This will help to counteract the torque and pressure placed on your lower back in the forward bend position.

Bagging Leaves

  • When bagging leaves, remember to use good body mechanics. Kneeling down onto one knee can be helpful in reducing stress on the lower back. You can also use a foam knee pad, alternating from right to left knee for comfort.
  • The best way to lift a heavy bag of leaves is to do a pelvic tilt, pulling the tummy in and tightening the buttocks with your knees slightly bent. Then squat, keeping the back straight, and letting your legs, not your back do the work when you lift. Keep the bag very close to your body when lifting or carrying to reduce the load through your spine. Concentrate on the position of your body, not the object that you’re lifting. Keep your back straight as you lift the bag;
  • Keep the leaf piles small so you don’t strain your back picking them up, and don’t overstuff the bags, especially wet ones, so that they’re too heavy to carry comfortably.

Final thoughts

  • After a day of working in the yard, do the same stretching exercises you warmed up with to relieve muscle tension; 
    Spread the work out and if the job is too challenging, enlist help from family or even neighbourhood teenagers;
  • If you do experience pain that lasts more than a few days, consult a physiotherapist. They have the education, training and skill to assess your injury and prescribe a treatment plan to help get you back in shape and help prevent a recurrence of injury; and
  • When the raking is done and the leaves are gone, don’t forget these tips. They will be needed again for shovelling snow this winter. 

For more raking and gardening tips, visit the Canadian Physiotherapy Association’s web site at www.physiotherapy.ca.