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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Avoiding grass strains: Stretching, hydration can stave off yardwork injuries

By Treva Lind, (509) 459-5439

Physical therapist Melinda Tangredi sees the plight most often on Mondays, visiting Spokane workplaces to treat people for what she describes as weekend-warrior gardening.

Those patients, suffering from a weekend of strenuous yard work, complain about sore muscles, pulled backs or other wounded body parts. That can be especially true among people who are older or not as physically active during the week.

“At least 50 percent of the people I see are the 50-plus workforce,” said Tangredi, who suggests at least 10 to 15 minutes of stretching before outdoor chores. “We call them the weekend warriors. A lot of them go out and mow the lawn and pull weeds. They come back Monday and they’re hurting.”

Some stretching and other preventive steps can help reduce risks of those aches and injuries from mowing, digging, harvesting and weeding, say Spokane-area gardeners and health care providers. The body also takes longer to warm up to activity as we age, explains Tangredi, and some people who are heading into weekend chores already have desk-job stiffness.

However, gardeners with more time during the week can trip up as well. Dr. Deb Gore, a Spokane Group Health family practice physician, said she tends to see more retirees seeking care because of injuries from garden and yard work.

“They’re not walking into my office every day, but they’re also not infrequent,” Gore said. “This time of year, I see backaches and people who have strained their knees. The other part of it is heat injuries, because they get out there and it’s super-hot. They get lightheaded and dizzy.”

Gore and others who are avid gardeners have a few general tips for outdoor protection: use ergonomic tools, drink lots of water, wear hats and sunscreen, don sensible shoes, and consider ear and eye protection.

“I’ve had a lot of people for whom things kick back, like from mowing or the weed whacker, and they’ve injured an eye or their face,” Gore said.

Master Gardener Dorene Harter doesn’t think highly of garden clogs.

“Wear proper shoes, something that will hold your ankles and would keep you from stumbling,” she said.

Tracy Lewis, a Spokane senior fitness instructor and also a Master Gardener, has taught others about good stretches to do before outdoor chores. But she warns of the same shoe dilemma: People tend to wear crummy shoes for dirt work.

“One of the most important things is to have good shoes,” she said. “People wear old sneakers out there in the garden, or sometimes they go out with their slippers on and see something. Walking on grass can be unstable for lots of people who are older, so you need to make sure you have good shoes and good support. Make sure to leave good shoes right by the door.”

Harter also instructs seniors on adaptive gardening techniques, often presenting the class at different area retirement homes. Seniors should stay active and still find joy in gardening, she said, and they can do so by using special tools and raised beds.

She often recommends use of garden tools ergonomically designed to ease the physical strains of yard work, such as trowels with a curved-handled design to reduce bending of the wrist.

“If you have arthritis, the tools they have in stores now have ergonomic or angled handles, and they’re easier on your arms,” Harter said. “The tools are almost anywhere now, all the garden centers. They have extended tools, so if someone’s in a wheelchair or whatever, you twist it, and it has a long handle. People can work with them in raised beds or for hanging plants.”

Other products are kneeling pads with support handles, lightweight hoses, and garden benches to reduce the need to kneel or bend over.

Harter said people can wrap shelf liner paper around tool handles for a softer feel and better hold. “If you have arthritis, you can’t quite close your hand real tight, so having it a little wider helps.”

People cultivating plants need to be mindful of tending to the body as well.

David Jeter, of Acceleration Physical Therapy, said people need to consider both mobility and stability.

“If you’re not moving well through your hips and pelvis, then you’re putting a lot of extra strain on the lower back,” Jeter said, adding that a physical therapist can help with such issues so other body parts aren’t being forced to do too much.

Over time, gravity takes its toll on the human body, he said.

“This forward-flexed posture where you’re kind of leaning over, hips bent in sort of that sitting position, shoulders rounded and head out in front of you,” he said. “At the end of the day, the more we can do to get out of that forward-flexed posture, that’s better. When you go out and do yard work, you’re really asking your body to get out of that position.”

“You end up injuring yourself.”

It’s also important to take breaks.

“For people being outside, they should keep themselves hydrated with water,” Harter said. “If you’re out in sunshine, be out in the morning before it’s too hot and also wear a hat to shade your face. Take a break, and try not to work a really long time to point you’re really tired.”

To warm up muscles before outdoor chores, Lewis recommends a few basic stretches:

Squeeze a small ball to work flexor muscles in forearms and strengthen the hand for grip.

Hold onto the kitchen sink and drop away. Put your head down between arms, with arms extended, to form a shape similar to a figure 7. Feet are a little in front of hips. Hold onto the counter with a flat back and move hips from one side to the other very slowly, gently stretching right and left.

Step forward with the right foot, bend that leg and leave the left leg straight behind; push heel down to stretch back of leg. Repeat with other leg.

Stretch shoulders reaching up with alternating arms. Clasps hands behind the back, fingers intertwined, and lift hands as high as is comfortable in the back. Do the same in the front.

Consider some squats as you hold onto the kitchen sink. If difficult, sit down and up in chair multiple times perhaps holding onto a table to work muscles needed for moving up and down in the garden.

The American Chiropractic Association also offers tips before yard work. For a mower pull cord, avoid twisting hard at the waist or yanking repeatedly, the group says. Instead, bend at the knees and pull in one smooth motion.

While cutting grass, stand as straight as possible behind the mower and keep your head up. Push with your whole body weight, rather than just arms and back. For raking, the ACA suggests a scissor stance with the right foot forward and left foot back for a few minutes, then reverse that with left foot forward.

Tangredi said if she had to prioritize tips, they would be to drink lots of water and do quick stretches focused on neck, lower back and shoulders. She offers physical therapy services at job sites through Work Right NW, including for the Cowles Company, which owns The Spokesman-Review. She also sees patients at a physical therapy clinic.

“You’d be surprised how many people I see in the summer after bending over to pull weeds,” she said. “It’s harder on your body than you think.”

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