You’re hauling up boxes of holiday decorations from the basement and hanging their contents. You’re shopping for hours at a time—carrying bags laden with stocking stuffers—and then wrapping the gifts and tucking them high and low, into your favorite hiding places. You’ll labor over a hot oven, lift that huge ham or turkey into the car and drive it over to the holiday dinner you’re attending.
“December is the ideal time for a refresher on proper lifting methods,” says physical therapist Patrick Donovan, owner of Heather Lane Physical Therapy in Denver. “Back pain and injury can put a real damper on the holiday season. We see it happen every year.”
Although 80 percent of Americans experience back pain at some point in their lives, Dr. Donovan emphasizes that the back isn’t the only area at risk during this time of year. Learning to lift, bend and twist properly will help you guard against injury to other spots as well.
“When we teach proper lifting techniques, we’re helping people to protect the back, yes, but we’re also looking to minimize strain on the entire body,” Dr. Donovan explains. “The goal is to use the body’s natural pulley system as one cohesive unit without putting too much strain on any single area, such as the lower back or shoulders.”
At Heather Lane PT, a comprehensive evaluation is performed to identify your areas of strength and target areas for improvement. Based on that evaluation, the physical therapist customizes an exercise regimen designed to keep you healthy while lifting and bending.
Before you start your holiday routine, check Dr. Donovan’s “Don’ts” for having a happy and safe season:
Don’t lift without warming up first. Your body’s not ready to lift heavy objects after you’ve been sitting on the couch. “Take a few minutes to stretch your shoulders, legs and hips before lifting,” Dr. Donovan recommends. “Do a few jumping jacks to get the blood flowing to the muscles in your body.”
Don’t lift from too far away. Get as close to the box or object as you can before trying to lift it. That way, you’ll avoid reaching away from your body, and you’ll minimize the force needed to lift it. As you carry it, too, hold it close to your body.
Don’t lift by bending from the waist. You know those guidelines you always hear about bending your knees and keeping your back straight as you lift an object? It’s good advice. Dr. Donovan says, “Keep your body upright as you use your knees to lower yourself to the object, and rely on your legs to help you rise back up.”
Don’t lift before you have good grip. This seems obvious, but Dr. Donovan says he’s seen many a “hero” who tries to carry an object without getting a solid, comfortable grip on it. “Find someone to carry it with you,” Dr. Donovan suggests, “or use a hand cart or dolly.”
Don’t twist or reach while carrying. Once you have the heavy load in your hands, stay focused on the task at hand. Don’t try to do anything more with your body than moving the object from one place to the next.
Don’t just drop the item when you reach your destination. Remember to set down the box or object the same way you picked it up—just in reverse. Keep it close to the body, lower yourself with your legs and move slowly and deliberately. “You can injure yourself as easily setting objects down as picking them up,” Dr. Donovan notes.
Don’t rush! Everything doesn’t have to get done on that one Saturday you set aside. Instead, use the full month of December to do your shopping, storing and decorating little by little. “And whenever you’re tired,” Dr. Donovan cautions, “stop and try again the next day.”
If you have an injury or condition you feel may put you at greater than average risk, before you start any lifting you can visit a physical therapist for a full assessment. And, of course, seek help if you do experience pain from lifting.