When the weather is warmer and sunnier, it’s great to get out and work on the yard or the garden. But even for those in great shape, it’s a good idea to prepare before getting active with a shovel, rake, wheelbarrow, or even just your hands. Some spine-saving stretches done before you work outside can save you lots of time, money, and pain lost to injury. It really doesn’t take that long: Once you learn them, you’ll be on your way to the toolshed in no time.
This simple stretch will warm up your lower back, glutes, hips, and quads. Clasp your hands together in front of you, your elbows gently bent, and slowly lower your behind. Keep your abs tight, your back straight, and your head in line with your back, until the tops of your thighs are nearly parallel to the floor. It’s almost as though you’re sitting on a very firm, but nonexistent chair.
Don’t let your behind get lower than your knees. It’s okay to stop higher up if going so low is painful. You want to feel a little burn, but not sharp pain. Hold your squat for a two-count, then slowly reverse to standing. Repeat 10 times if you can.
“Hang on,” you may be saying. “What does my spine have to do with my hamstring?” Or you may be saying, “What’s the hamstring?” (It’s the group of tendons at the back of your knee.) Tight hamstrings put more stress on your lower back. They can even cause some of the conditions that lead to sciatica or low back pain.
To stretch the hamstring, stand and extend your right leg forward about two feet. Keeping your right heel on the ground, lift the ball and toes of the right foot. Keep your back straight, your head in line with your back, and put both hands on your right thigh. Then lean forward while letting your left leg bend. You should feel the stretch in your right hamstring and calf muscle. Hold for at least 20 seconds, then change sides.
Neck and Shoulder Stretches
Having your head too far forward, or in an awkward position can lead to upper back pain, pain in your shoulder blades, or headaches. Neck and shoulder stretches help preserve elasticity in your neck joints, as well as full range of motion.
All of these moves should be done very slowly:
- Shoulder shrugs. Lift your shoulders toward your ears and then slowly bring them down. Repeat three or four times.
- Shoulder circles. Circle your shoulders by moving them forward, raising them up toward your ears, pushing them back, and then moving them down to the starting position. Do this three times going forward and three times in reverse.
- Neck half-circle. Turn your head so that you’re looking as far to your left as you can. Lower your chin toward the center of your chest. Then gradually turn to the right to look as far as you can in that direction. Repeat two times from left to right, then two more times from right to left.
Beyond stretching, there are other easy ways to save your spine from outdoor strain, and improve your overall back health. Wear supportive shoes, lift with your legs, and work on strengthening your core. And while we’re talking about the outdoors, make sure you get plenty of water to drink, and apply and reapply sunscreen properly, no matter the season. When you feel good, you’ll feel a lot more satisfied by a job well done.