If yard and garden work define your summertime workout, watch your back.
Experts say the most common mistake we make while working in our yards or gardens is forcing our backs to bear the brunt of the burden.
"Improper lifting and not bending correctly -- these are the most obvious mistakes I see people make when they work outside. Both can lead to back injury," said Britton Taylor, a physical therapist at Great East Rehabilitation Center in Niles.
B.J. Farr, a physical therapist and facility director at Keystone Rehabilitation Systems in Howland, agreed.
"People have a tendency to bend at the spine and not the knees because it feels easier to do, but bending at the spine strains the back," Farr said.
Lifting properly: To properly lift something, stand with your feet apart, your chest out, keep an inward arch to your lower back and keep whatever you are lifting close to your belly button, Farr said.
Taylor recommends squatting to pick up objects that are lying on the ground instead of bending at the waist, and Farr suggests making use of items such as wheelbarrows, wagons or coal carts when heavy lifting is involved.
"There are a lot of alternatives to heaving a 40- or 50-pound bag of fertilizer over your shoulder," Farr said. "It's better to fill a wheelbarrow and lift the wheelbarrow than it is to try to lift the heavy object on your own."
If you are going to lift a fully loaded wheelbarrow, bend your knees and lift it using not just your back but also your hips, legs and arms.
This rule of thumb goes for both fitness freaks and couch potatoes.
"The knees and hips should always be involved. A person can be built like Arnold Swarzenegger, but if they use their back incorrectly, they are going to experience problems. Whether you are a man with broad shoulders or a woman with narrow shoulders, your back needs the same amount of care and protection," Taylor said.
If your knees are weak, do exercises intended to strengthen the knees or opt for a "golfer's lift" when it's time to pick up something that is lying on the ground.
"A golfer's lift is exactly what you see golfer's do when they retrieve a ball. They bend at the waist and put one leg up," Taylor explained.
Care: Taking care of your back when it's time to hoe the vegetable garden, rake up yard debris or dig out topsoil for a new flower bed is also crucial.
"Alternate which hand you hold the hoe or rake in," Farr said. "We have a tendency to use whatever hand we write with, but it's not good to put all the strain on just one side of the body."
Farr also warns against bending forward at the waist for long periods of time while weeding flower beds.
"Instead of bending forward, sit on a cart or a bucket. This puts you closer to where you are working and it's easier on your back and the rest of your body. There are all kinds of carts designed for gardeners out on the market now. Lots of them come with wheels, and they make weeding or planting beds more comfortable and easier," Farr said.
Ladder safety: If an outdoor fitness fanatic's back hasn't been injured by inappropriate heavy lifting, Taylor said it probably has been injured by a fall from a ladder.
"I used to work at a hospital, and over and over again in the summer, I would see people who had fallen off of ladders and hurt their backs or shoulders," Taylor said. "If I could give one piece of advice to people working outside in their yards it would be to stay off the roof and leave the ladder-climbing to the professionals."
Taylor said older people whose balance is not what it was in their younger days are especially at risk for a fall from a ladder.
"Lots of the people I would see at the hospital who had fallen from ladders were people over 60. They didn't realize their balance wasn't as good as it once was," Taylor said.
Uneven surfaces in the yard are another factor that could lead to a fall or a sprained or broken ankle.
"If your yard is uneven, it's easy to not see a hole and hurt yourself," Taylor said.
Conditioning: Lying around all winter like a mossy rock and then attempting to spring into Iron Man fitness for summer is another common folly that can lead to injury.
"It's best to practice an all-around strengthening and exercise program all year long. Your body is going to be strained if you don't exercise it for a long time and then just leap right into something intense," Taylor said.
If you like to work outside, Farr recommends making it a year-round activity by raking leaves in the fall and shoveling snow in the winter.
Whatever you do, remember that yard work is just as intense, if not more intense, than a workout at the gym.
"A recent article in Prevention magazine ranked yard and garden work as second only in intensity to weightlifting," Farr said. "Remember that. Approach your garden work and yard work the same way you would a workout at the gym. Warm up first, even if this means just walking around a little to get your heart pumping. And start out slow. Don't jump into two hours of intense work the first day. Start with 30 minutes."
Cooling effects: If you do pull a muscle, don't treat the pain with a heating pad.
"For the first 48 hours, use ice packs to relieve the pain. Heat brings an increase in circulation to the area, which results in more fluid and an increase in inflammation. Ice shrinks the size of blood vessels and slows nerve impulses. After 48 hours, then you can use heat as a treatment," Farr said.
And speaking of heat, work out in the yard or garden during the heat of the day.
"Work in the morning or evening, stay hydrated and wear light-colored, loose clothing," Farr said.

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