The autumn leaves look so lovely that we all might wish they would stay on their branches forever—especially since raking them up is such a pain in the neck (and in the back and shoulder muscles, too). But fall they will, and all too soon. So rather than suffer those post-rake aches, let’s talk about how to have a pain-free fall cleanup.

For pointers, I contacted health and fitness consultant Rachel Hazuga, an accomplished gardener and former community wellness/fitness director at the La Crosse Area Family YMCA in Wisconsin. Her advice…

  • To minimize the effort involved, get the right rake for the job. Don’t use a garden rake—its heavy, rectangular head and short, rigid tines are better suited to breaking up hard dirt clods. Instead, you want what is called a yard rake, lawn rake or leaf rake, Hazuga said—it typically has a fan-shaped head and long, flexible tines. Opt for a 24-inch-wide head, which requires less pressure to drag the leaves across the lawn than an extra-wide 36-inch head. A padded handle helps prevent blisters and hand fatigue.
  • As a further safeguard against blisters, wear gardening gloves. (I also find it helpful to put a Band-aid on the webbed area between the thumb and first finger of each hand before I begin raking.)
  • Wet leaves are slippery, so wear shoes with nonslip soles to guard against falls.
  • Before you start your yard work, warm up your muscles with a few minutes of light exercise, such as brisk walking.
  • As you rake, avoid over-twisting your spine—this motion can strain your lower back, Hazuga cautioned. It is safer to turn your whole body so that you have easy access to the leaves around you.
  • Don’t reach out too far with each stroke. Instead, use short, quick strokes, extending your arms only as far as you can while keeping the rake nearly perpendicular to the ground at about a 65º to 85º angle. “This keeps the work close to your body’s center of gravity, allowing for better leverage and minimizing the effort required,” Hazuga explained.
  • It may feel more natural to hold the rake with a particular hand on top, but to minimize fatigue and muscle soreness, you’re better off switching sides every few minutes and spending equal time on each side. With a bit of practice, you’ll soon be an ambidextrous raker.
  • Rather than making one big pile of leaves, Hazuga recommended making multiple small piles. This way, you won’t be moving the leaves any farther than you have to.
  • Take frequent breaks to avoid overexertion…and drink plenty of fluids to guard against dehydration.
  • If you need to bag your leaves, protect your back as you do so by bending your knees and lifting straight up, keeping your spine straight and letting your leg and buttock muscles do the work.
  • When you’re done outdoors, do some simple stretches to ward off muscle soreness. Pay particular attention to your back. A good back stretch: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, knees very slightly bent. Bend elbows and position hands as if placing them in the back pockets of your jeans…tilt head to gaze upward, gently arching back…hold for several seconds. Next, straighten arms at sides…slowly bend forward at waist to touch your toes (or shins, depending on your flexibility). Repeat several times.

My favorite tip: Follow with a nice, warm bubble bath.

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