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Household Chores and Your Back: Positives, Perils – and Practical Advice

POSTED BY: Florida Hospital

Cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, washing the car, getting the groceries… they’re all called “chores” for a reason – and together with a host of other not-so-fun activities, they’re an inescapable part of life for most adults. But if you suffer from chronic back pain related to an injury or degenerative spinal condition, you probably know that some chores can be more than just time-consuming; they’re downright hard on your back!

The good news is that you can learn healthy ways of accomplishing certain tasks in order to avoid putting undue stress on your spine. And the better news is that many such activities can actually benefit your back through physical exercise that both strengthens your core and burns real calories while you clean.

Below are some examples of common household chores along with tips for carrying them out without doing damage to your spine:

Vacuuming, mopping and sweeping the floor

Few people take pleasure in vacuuming, mopping or sweeping, but it may help to know that you’re actually getting a good workout while undertaking such tasks. Depending on how vigorously you attack each chore, you can burn up to 50 calories every 15 to 30 minutes. Since exercising and maintaining a healthy weight are two of the most effective ways to avoid back injuries, you’re also potentially doing yourself a favor while tidying the house. To avoid straining your back during these chores, be sure to stretch and warm your muscles first, avoid awkward twisting and excessive reaching, and take a look at this quick video that demonstrates proper vacuuming technique.

Cooking dinner and doing the dishes

We’ve talked before about how nutritious foods can help you ward off back and neck pain. In fact, healthily prepared foods not only supply your body with the vitamins and minerals it needs to maintain strong bones and muscles, but may also combat the inflammation that triggers pain in your back and neck. Here are several dietary tips aimed at keeping your spine comfortable for years to come.  And when your meal is over, you may want to give your automatic dishwasher a break when you realize that you can burn up to 100 calories an hour while simply washing and drying the dishes. Just remember that while working at the kitchen counter or sink, placing one foot on the edge of an open lower cupboard can help stabilize and reduce the strain on your spine – here’s a quick video that explains what we’re talking about.

Doing laundry

Hauling clothes to and from the washing machine, plus hanging and folding them when they’re done, can add up to a mini-workout if you stay at the task for a bit. In fact, you’ll burn just over one calorie per minute while undertaking this unavoidable chore. The key is to practice proper lifting technique (as shown in this quick video) and avoid sudden jerks and awkward twisting movements.

Mowing, raking and gardening

If you cut your grass using a push mower, you know you’re getting a workout when you’re doing it. The truth is, you can burn about 100 calories in as little as 20 minutes – and more than 300 calories in an hour. That’s pretty efficient exercise. But to avoid hurting your back, it’s important that you use your core muscles as much as possible, with added strength coming from your quadriceps when pushing uphill or through a dense patch. Other yard chores that allow you to burn as many as 300 calories per hour include raking and gardening tasks such as weeding, pruning and edging. If you’re digging in the garden, focus on using your leg and axilla (armpit) muscles, and when you feel that your back is becoming fatigued, take a break. Stand up and stretch every few minutes, and don’t twist to the side while your feet are planted in a squat. Avoid bending over from a standing position and sit on the ground if possible.

Washing the windows, car or dog

Work hard enough at it, and you’ll burn more than 30 calories every 15 minutes or so while you’re washing your windows or giving your car a much-needed bath. And as for washing your dog? Depending on your pet (and how tough he makes the task for you), it’s reasonable to expect you’ll burn 40 or more calories in just a quarter of an hour.  As always, it helps to have strong core muscles if you want to avoid back strain while undertaking these activities, and stretching beforehand is a must.

Grocery shopping

If you do most of the grocery shopping for your family, it’s likely an underappreciated chore – but you might not know how good it can be as a basic workout. Provided that you practice correct bending and lifting techniques as demonstrated in our Back to Basics videos, you can burn nearly 90 calories an hour while using a shopping cart – and well over twice that amount without the cart. More than this, if you have to haul groceries upstairs, then you’ll be burning calories at a rate of up to 400 per hour! Importantly, you need to put your core and hip flexor muscles to work when rotating and lifting items into your cart in order to avoid hurting your back. And don’t unload too many bags of groceries at a time when you get them home. Light loads will not only help you avoid hurting your back, but will also ensure you get more exercise by making additional trips to and from your car.

When daily housekeeping and other chores become difficult due to back pain and stiffness, it’s time to consult a spine expert. Click here to learn more about our Spine Health Institute.