How to Survive Moving Day Without a Back Injury

Almost everyone I know who has relocated complained about back pain when it was over. I made sure I wasn't around on moving day itself, so I really can't tell you if they complained then. (This strategy helped my back, I assure you...) My guess is they complained about back pain while they were moving, too.

Family in an empty room with moving boxes
Jack Hollingsworth / Getty Images

It was only when I had to move that I really understood the need for things like planning ahead, self-care, pacing, etc. when relocating. Now that I'm snugly in my new place, here are my tips for a back-safe move:

Start Early

Nearly everyone accumulates things. The problem is many of us don’t realize how much stuff we have until we relocate. 

One thing I did to prepare for moving was to start purging unnecessary belongings an entire year ahead. (I knew I was going to move at some point, but I didn’t know exactly when.) I held a garage sale which not only put a few bucks in my pocket but significantly lightened my load when moving day arrived. And since I was on a roll after the sale, I continued to reduce the load I'd eventually be carrying by donating and selling.

Strengthen Your Core

Another aspect of starting early is to plan ahead about how you'll support your back when the day comes. Most spine experts will tell you that a strong core—by core I mean abdominal and pelvic muscles—is the best way to protect your back. So why not begin, continue, or up-level a core strengthening program ahead of moving day?

If this option appeals to you, I suggest you start the program at least six weeks prior to your scheduled move. The workout could include:

If you have back pain, doing a routine like this every day is probably a good idea. If your back is doing fine and you're looking to avoid an injury such as muscle strain or herniated disc, two to three times per week will likely allow you to prepare the muscles adequately. (More is also good.)

Pace Yourself

Nothing ups your risk for back injury more than having to haul an apartment or houseful of furniture along with a multitude of boxes and clean up your old place all in one day.

If you can afford it, you can pace yourself by keeping two places during the month you plan to move. 

Delegate the Hard Work to Someone Else

I’m sure you’ve heard this advice before, but I’ll risk the consequences of telling you again. Don’t be a hero. Everyone has limits as to how much they can do physically, and this is especially true if you have a back problem.

The reality is, moving costs money. One way to spend it well, though, is to get help when you need it. In other words, delegate the chores that make your back hurt by either hiring someone or bartering.

And when your helpers do arrive, actively supervise them so they are the workers who do the heavy lifting.

Warm Up

Although lifting heavy furniture is not a workout per se, it will physically challenge you. You’ll be using your muscles and moving your body, just as you do when you exercise.

As with an exercise session, you should warm up before you start to work.

Warming up for aerobic activity generally consists of light, easy movements that are similar to those you make during the main part of your exercise. (For example, if you walk for exercise, a warm-up might consist of slow easy walking for 10 minutes.) But when you engage with the heavy work of moving your home, you’ll be doing a variety of things, including lifting. A warm-up, in this case, should consist of gently moving every joint through its range of motion, activating your muscles and getting your heart rate up (but don't overdo it).

If you have a back problem, you can lie in the supine position and go through the basic back exercise series gently. Focus on increasing your body awareness, getting your muscles going, and opening up your joints.

If your back is OK, start from either all fours (the backstretch, or the yoga cat-cow) or from standing. Do some marching in place, weightless squats and lunges, side bends, and slow stair climbing. 

Lift Smart

Too many of us don’t think about the way in which we use our bodies to accomplish our intended task. Maybe you can get away with this when you’re not under stress, but let’s face it—moving is stressful!

The rule of thumb when lifting heavy objects is to bend your hips, knees, and ankles to lower your body toward the object (photo). By approaching the task in this way, you can avoid bending over at the spine. Your spine has more moving parts and is smaller and more delicate than your hips and legs. So use the power in your lower body to take the load. Your back will thank you for it when you’re in your new place.

Release Your Back

Most of the time, back pain is due to excess tension in the muscles around the spine, hips, and pelvis. It may be easier than you think to release this tension. Try the following during breaks and/or when you're completely done with your move.

One way is to simply lie on your back (preferably on a hard surface such as the floor) with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Breathe deeply and allow yourself to relax. This shouldn’t take too long, even a minute or two may help relieve fatigue in your muscles.

You can increase the release by bringing your knees toward your chest. Your knees and hips should bend, and you should sense a folding action at both joints. This folding action provides efficiency of joint movement and may help you release muscles that have tightened because they were working overtime. Squeezing your knees into your chest may also give your low back a little stretch.

By Anne Asher, CPT
Anne Asher, ACE-certified personal trainer, health coach, and orthopedic exercise specialist, is a back and neck pain expert.