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1. Warm up first
Raking or shovelling without a warm up could harm cold muscles and stiff joints. "A lot of people don't think of raking leaves or shovelling snow as exercise, but it is," says Dr. Ayla Azad, a chiropractor in Ajax, Ontario, and vice-president of the Ontario Chiropractic Association. "We recommend that you warm up with a brisk walk before you start. A walk increases blood flow to the muscles, and gets the joints moving."
2. Adopt a body-healthy technique
The repetitive movements associated with raking leaves can lead to muscle pulls and back pain. To steer clear of injuries, Dr. Azad recommends raking with one arm, and then switching to the other. "Switching back and forth equalizes the forces through the muscles, so you don't tighten one side, get an imbalance and start feeling pain," she says.
When clearing your property of snow, "bend your knees, use your leg muscles, and push the snow instead of lifting it," says Dr. Azad. "Your leg muscles will give you some support for your back." Lifting, twisting your upper back, and throwing a shovel loaded with heavy snow could result in a serious back, muscle or joint injury. "Twisting puts a lot of strain through the lower back and the discs—our shock absorbers between the vertebrae," says Dr. Azad. "You can strain the muscles, and ligaments, and end up with a severe herniated disc that puts a lot of pressure on your nerves. It's very painful, and could require surgery."
3. Don't do it all at once
Do you wait for a snowfall to finish, or for all the leaves on your trees to come down before you start your clean up? This practice of taking it all on in one long session can lead to injuries. Instead, break the job up into several small sessions. "Most people aren't used to the movements associated with raking and shovelling, so they wake up the next day after this strenuous activity and are in pain," says Dr. Azad. "Doing the job in multiple small sessions lets your body get used to that motion." With each outing, you'll have fewer leaves, and less snow to shift, resulting in any easier task on your body. And don't forget to take breaks. A 15 to 20 minute respite allows your body to rest and regroup before the next bout.
4. Select back-friendly tools
The right equipment could help you avoid injury. Choose a shovel that's lightweight, and features an ergonomic handle. "When you're shovelling heavy snow, a heavy shovel will add extra weight," says Dr. Azad. "A curved, ergonomic handle will put less strain through your back, and make it easier to push snow."
5. Bag leaves properly
Bending over at the waist to bag raked leaves can do a number on your back. "Stooping is terrible. The repetitive nature of that motion causes back problems," says Dr. Azad. Instead of bending from the waist, maintain a straight back and use your leg and glute muscles to squat down while bagging leaves.
6. Wear proper footwear
Boots with sturdy treads can provide traction on wet or icy surfaces, and reduce the risk of slips, falls and broken bones that often result from a tumble. "The proper footwear will also help stabilize your legs and avoid excess pressure travelling through your back," says Dr. Azad.
7. Snow blower safety
A snow blower may make snow removal easier, but users should still follow back-friendly protocols to avoid pain and injury. "Snow blowers put less strain on your back, but make sure that you're using your legs and your back is supported while you're pushing the blower," says Dr. Azad. Some snow blowers are heavy, and require extra force for proper operation, so precautions to protect your back are imperative.
8. Listen to your body
"Your body will tell you when it's time to stop," says Dr. Azad. "Sometimes we ignore that. We think we can do 5 more minutes even if our back is hurting. Pain is our best guide to say, enough. If you ignore it, that's when problems can start."
If you have a heart condition, a pre-existing back ailment, or are elderly, you might want to let someone else do your raking or shoveling. "A fall on the driveway, or a broken hip for an elderly person can be a life-altering problem, so in these cases, it's better to hire someone, or ask your neighbours to help you," he says.
Find more information on living with chronic back pain.