With spring well on the way and summer on the horizon our attention turns to outdoor activities such as gardening, cycling or swimming in the lake. Being stooped over a shovel or hoe for extended periods can lead to low back stiffness and pain.
This is due to the muscles responsible for your back’s stability being stretched at the same time as they are under tension – an eccentric muscle contraction.
Prolonged time in this position can cause a muscle spasm as the muscles are over-worked and attempting to stabilize the involved joints. It is actually a protective process so that the joints and their joint capsules do not get injured. Preventive measures involve using a tool with a longer handle to prevent the forward flexion as much as possible and taking periodic breaks to let the muscles relax and reduce the pressure/tension within the muscle.
Overhead activities such as pruning in early spring can lead to problems in the lower neck and upper back as one strains to keep the neck extended to look up and the shoulders extended as well to do the work required.
If practical, being as level as possible to the work area, whether from a ladder or some type of scaffolding, so that one doesn’t have to reach so far can help to prevent this.
If cycling is your thing, proper saddle and handlebar stem height are two of the most important bike-fit factors. The saddle should be at a point whereby with the pedal in a six o’clock position the leg should be bent only 10-15 degrees at the knee – similar to the position when scraping mud off the bottom of your shoes, if that’s of some help to picture it. The stem ought to be high enough such that the arms and shoulders are relaxed whether one is holding the bike from up on the brake hoods or down in the handlebar drops. Important stretches to do are for not only the hamstrings and quadricep muscles, but also the hip flexors since sitting in a hunched position on longer rides can cause them to tighten up.
Swimming in open water, while great exercise, requires extra precautions and skills that pool swimming does not. If one doesn’t plan to stray far from shore these aren’t much of an issue, but if swimming around the island at Thetis is a plan these must be kept in mind. First of all, water temperature: while fresh water is relatively warmer than sea water, a wet suit should be considered if you plan to be out there more than 20 minutes or so. Hypothermia can sneak up on you and has serious implications if you’re 500m out from shore and no one close to help. The conditions of the surface are an issue as well: if the wind is blowing waves at you from the right, for example, can you breathe on the other side well enough to accommodate? The ability to breathe bilaterally is a must in rough open water.
Sighting is an issue as well since there are no lane markers to use as in a pool. Being able to take a couple strokes with your head out and looking straight ahead can be a big help. It requires a little more energy to keep yourself up high enough, but is worth while. Alternatively, one can take a quick peek during the normal stroke, but this should be practiced in a pool beforehand, and doesn’t work so well in rough water.
Perhaps you’re a walker/hiker and aside from stretching the legs and hips to keep things limber, you’re at relatively little risk of injury, which is why this is such a great exercise and can be done anywhere and offers an excellent opportunity to see a neighborhood/hiking area/vacation city at a pace that allows one to notice the details and enjoy them. Whatever your activity, get out there this spring and summer and take advantage of the good weather before the rains come again that send us back to our cocoons!
Dr. Mark Strudwick is a third-generation chiropractor in Victoria, B.C.