Longer, warmer days mean more time outdoors – and more time in the yard and garden raking, lifting, digging, hauling, spreading, pushing, and so on. Whether you consider this work enjoyable or intolerable, McFarland physical therapist Brian Doolan has a message for all who partake in gardening and landscaping this summer: watch your back.

“When gardening and working in the yard, a lot of your movement takes place in a bent position, which is unnatural on the body and, over time, can lead to lower-back pain,” said Doolan, owner of Back in Motion Physical Therapy & Sports Medicine in McFarland. “Repetitive bending, reaching, twisting and lifting tend to put the lower-lumbar area of your back at risk.”

Gardening and yard work remain one of the most popular outdoor activities in the U.S. – a $36.9 billion industry, according to Garden Research, formerly the National Garden Association. Garden Research estimates that around 74 percent of all U.S. households participated in lawn and garden activities in 2016.

To maximize the joy of gardening and yard work – or to make the activity more bearable – Doolan offers the following tips for avoiding back pain and injury while working up a sweat:

Warm Up & Stretch: Think of this work 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 in unloading pressure from the spine.

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

Take Breaks: While in the yard 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 bend backward a few times before starting,” Doolan 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 Doolan, the use of quality, long-handled gardening tools can reduce your need to bend at the waist. And, don’t lift and carry if you have a wheelbarrow or garden cart available to help.

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