Spring Forward, but Watch Your Back

After an inactive winter it’s easy to strain or hurt ourselves the first time we’re working outdoors, clearing or preparing a garden, swinging a golf club or baseball bat, moving outdoor furniture or simply doing anything physical.  There are a number of tips we can follow to prevent or limit muscle strain, aches and injuries, including stretching before and after physical activities, remaining properly hydrated, getting enough sleep, eating well and knowing our own limitations.

One of the keys to remaining injury-free before work or working out is to make sure to stretch properly and bend and lift carefully to avoid back, knee and shoulder injuries. Always stretch before, and when possible, after working or exercising.

Proper stretching loosens up tight muscles and makes us more limber. When stretching, focus on the big muscles first. The quadriceps and hamstrings in our thighs are generally the largest muscles of the body and deserve special attention, particularly because they play a key supporting role for our backs. That means stretching the back, front, and inner and outer thigh. Then continue to work the other muscle groups, from your neck to your toes, tightening and loosening each as you move down your body.

Besides warming up, when gardening, doing yard work or taxing ourselves physically, it’s important to use proper techniques for bending and lifting. Simple tips include keeping objects close to our bodies when lifting, and maintaining the natural curves of our spine as we work. It’s useful to bend our knees and squat or kneel to get to ground level instead of bending over. And when kneeling, be mindful of position: try kneeling with one knee on the ground and the other up, and periodically switch knees to alleviate pressure. Also try to avoid sudden twisting or reaching motions, keeping movements smooth, and adjust posture frequently to reduce the risk of repetitive-motion injuries.

Another trick for staying loose and avoiding aches and pains is to apply heat before and after a workout. Heat prior to working out can minimize muscle strain. After a workout, muscles and joints are potentially dehydrated and, because they are weakened, are not as stable as when they have been resting. Applying a heating pad or wrap for 10 – 15 minutes while seated or lying down after a workout session or strenuous activity like spring cleaning can help muscles calm down and return to their normal state without seizing up.

Proper Bending Is Key to Avoiding Injuries

Always be sure to bend at the hip, not the lower back. Most people believe bending their knees will ensure a safe lift, but this form alone can still lead to a back injury. The most important tip is to bend the hips and keep the upper body upright as much as possible, pointing forward.

Keeping the chest forward also is important. When the chest is kept forward and the body is bent at the hips, the back is kept straight and back injury can be avoided. The back muscles will then be used most effectively for maintaining good posture, as they are designed to do. The knees will bend automatically so the muscles of the legs and hips will produce the power for lifting correctly.

Twisting, repetitive lifting or hefting strenuous amounts of weight is another dangerous mistake that can lead to back or shoulder injury. The shoulder is one of the most complex joints in our body; comprising more than 30 muscles and six major ligaments, it can move and articulate into more than 1,500 different positions. Our shoulders should be kept in line with the hips to avoid twisting movement. For changing directions, move the hips first so the shoulders will move in unison.  When moving the shoulders first, the hips tend to lag behind creating the dangerous twisting that can cause back injury, especially to the joints in the back and pelvis.

Here are some additional tips for avoiding injuries and remaining healthy, especially as the spring draws us out of hibernation and into a full range of outdoor and indoor activities:

  • Stay hydrated. This is good advice anytime, but especially when engaged in sports or working outdoors. Dehydrated muscles and tendons are less flexible and less resilient. If you’re a coffee drinker, reduce your risk of muscle strain by drinking more water than coffee, and avoid excessive alcohol, another cause of dehydration.
  • Avoid smoking. In addition to its other downsides, nicotine impairs the healing process for tendons and muscles.
  • Vary activities: Mix it up to prevent muscle imbalance. If repeating the same overhead motion, shoulder muscles will get overworked and others will decondition; this can throw off the shoulder’s balance, resulting in tendon damage.
  • Use proper form when lifting and carrying heavy items. Keep an upright position to help protect the back. And if you’re doing overhead work, use a ladder or step stool to put the work at eye level and reduce stress on the shoulders.
  • Eat well: Without the nutrients our muscles need to stay healthy and to heal if they become strained, we put ourselves at constant risk. Avoid sweets, fried foods and excessive salt, and focus on a broad mix of fruits, vegetables and grains, as well as fish and other proteins.

Preventing injuries and staying healthy is a day-by-day activity – if you hurt yourself right out of the gate in the spring, it may take months to heal . . . and before you know it, winter will be here again!  So, remember to stretch before and after physical activity to help your muscles relax and rebound more quickly, and take care of your body!

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!