As we head into a new season, one where the sun begins to resurface after months of hiding behind rain clouds, we are struck with inspiration to go outside and jump into hobbies and activities. Unfortunately, this sudden onset of spring fever can have painful repercussions if our bodies have grown accustomed to a more sedentary lifestyle during the winter months.
For this reason, business in the physical therapy world tends to pick up as the seasons change. Though we love to have our schedules and waiting rooms filled with patients, there are some ways that these injuries can be prevented, which could save you time, money, and from the pain and inconvenience of an injury.
Stretching, strengthening and pacing are a few key steps in the prevention of injuries. Whether you are headed out for an afternoon of gardening, hiking, biking, running or even doing some spring cleaning, it is imperative that you prepare your body for the activities ahead.
Before leaving the house or tackling that to-do list, set time aside to stretch larger muscle groups such as your calves, quads and hips. Holding stretches for two 30-second holds is sufficient. Pushing yourself to a point of muscle stretch, and not pain, is crucial.
Another effective way of stretching and preparing the body for physical activity is implementing a dynamic warm-up. Essentially, a dynamic warm-up adds movement to the stretches that we traditionally resort to. A brisk walk, which activates multiple muscle groups, also serves as a great dynamic warm-up prior to activity or physically taxing work.
In addition, a focus on strengthening will help to prepare your muscles by reconditioning and building up endurance that will fight off fatigue, which can be a contributor to injury. When we are fatigued our bodies often revert to habits that have formed over time, which generally do not involve the firing of stability muscles that protect us from injury. Strengthening will occur over time as you build up endurance through activity but should also be a focus in between outings and activities.
Core strength is foundational to overall wellness. Core strengthening should surpass the classic crunches and encompass body stabilization exercises such as planks, bridges and birddogs. Much of our low back pain can be attributed to weak core muscles and poor posture. A focus on these elements before drastically increasing your level of activity is crucial.
In addition to the core muscles, strengthening through clamshell and leg lift exercises is beneficial as weakness in the hips is also a contributor to low back pain. There are plenty of resources available for guidance on exercises such as these; however, it is wise to consult your physical therapist before implementing a new exercise routine to establish proper form, the most beneficial exercises and correct body mechanics.
Arguably, the most important part of injury prevention is pacing. Pacing when returning to activity allows the body to adjust and strengthen while activities are being reintroduced after a period of inactivity or different activity. Pacing yourself can be practiced by ”actively resting” while gardening by sitting on a stool instead of crouching or sitting on your knees. Choosing to actively rest allows you to continue the activity longer. Actively resting lessens the impact on the body and as a result it decreases the level of fatigue and potential for injury.
In addition to the practice of actively resting, the idea of a ladder, gradually building up to the top, is a good visual for the concept of pacing. Another form of this discipline is limiting yourself to a certain amount of time for your activity. Instead of hiking until dark or planting flowers and pulling weeds until the project is finished, choose a conservative amount of time to dedicate to the activity. When you have reached the time limit that you set, allow yourself a break to hydrate, assess how you are feeling and decide to continue with your activity or stop for the day.
When returning to activity in the future, increase your time limit in small increments until you feel you have built a strong base and have an awareness of when your body needs a break. When signing up for a marathon you do not start your training by running the distance of the race. Instead, you build up gradually to the race distance while incorporating the principles discussed above.
The process of returning to physical activities and tasks that are taxing on our bodies is no different. Consistency is important when building up strength, endurance, and transitioning into a more active lifestyle. If you are at a loss for direction when it comes to planning your routine of stretching, strengthening and pacing, consult your physical therapist with your ideas and concerns for injury prevention.
As the seasons change and the weather improves, do not fight the urge to go outside and partake in your favorite activities; prepare your body and prevent injuries so that you can enjoy your favorite activities all spring long!