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As winter turns to spring and local green thumbs plan for a season of gardening and general yard maintenance, Eagle River physical therapist Chris Wilson has a message for garden and landscape enthusiasts: watch your back.

“When gardening, a fact majority of your movement takes place in a bent position, which is unnatural on the body and, when prolonged, can lead to lower-back pain,” said Wilson, owner of Ideal Motion Physical Therapy. “Repetitive bending, reaching, twisting and lifting – all actions common to gardening – tend to put the lower-lumbar area of your back at risk.”

Gardening remains one of the most popular outdoor activities in the U.S., with the National Garden Association estimating that 40 million households plant and maintain gardens each year. To maximize the joy of gardening and maintaining a healthy lawn, Wilson offers the following tips to help people avoid back pain and injury while enjoying the fruits of their labor:

Warm Up & Stretch: Think of gardening as a physical activity, not a leisurely hobby. As such, warm-up is required, a regimen consisting of simple exercises for stretching your quads, hip flexors and back. Also, don’t overlook the value of walking for unloading pressure from the spine.

Start Slow: Don’t tackle the tough jobs first. Wilson suggests warming up your body and building stamina by starting with simpler projects and breaking larger projects into shorter gardening sessions.

Take Breaks: While in the yard and/or garden, take frequent breaks to walk around, hydrate and stretch. Every few minutes, stand and extend your spine in a backward bend in order to equalize pressure in the spine. “If you know you’re going to be hunched over raking or pulling weeds, it helps to put your hands on your hips and backward bend a few reps before doing it,” Wilson said.

Garden on Hands & Knees: When working close to the ground, do so on all fours. Better than bending at the waist, this gardening position places the least pressure on the spine – even better than kneeling or working from a seated position.

Practice Mindful Lifting: When lifting bags of fertilizer or heavy potted plants, always bend with the knees and lift with your legs, keeping the bulk of the weight close to your body.

Buy & Use Quality Tools: According to Wilson, the use of quality, long-handled gardening tools can reduce your need to bend at the waist. And don’t lift and carry when you have a wheelbarrow or garden cart available.

Listen to Your Body: If you begin to feel discomfort or pain in your spine, take a break, change tasks or stop your gardening task altogether. “Walk, stretch and rest your back,” Wilson said. “If pain or discomfort persists, contact your physical therapist directly for a personal assessment of the back and spine.”