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Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Now & Then Sunday Punch

Plant Life
Sporting with Flowers
Training for gardening can save you soreness and other grief

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Doing some strengthening exercises and pacing ourselves through tasks can minimize the pain we gain from gardening, says physical therapist Bart Simons.
BART SIMONS considers gardening to be like any other sport. People need to train before putting hand to shovel, just as before running a marathon or setting off to ride a bike in the STP. The first sunny spring weekend sends as many sore and injured gardeners into Simons' physical-therapy office as skiers who hobble in seeking help after winter's first serious snowfall.

While gardening often seems an intensely cerebral process, it is left to our bodies to carry out all we dream up. No wonder so many gardeners make their way to Simons' office, most often with lower-back pain, but also knee, shoulder and wrist problems. "Low-back injuries are just a human thing to happen," says Simons, since human beings insist on walking upright. Once we're past our 20s, most people have some degenerative disc problems, he explains, which means we need to take precautions with our backs over decades of active gardening.

Simons likens sore-gardener shoulder to a baseball spring-training injury, because it comes from repeatedly using an arm close to shoulder level. Wrist injuries are caused by the strain of grabbing and grasping, and using tools to prune and weed. How about that motion of digging down, over and over again, for the roots of horsetail or bindweed? It can cause inflammation of the wrist, or even tendinitis. People rarely garden with enough force or vigor to cause serious knee injuries. However, knees aren't designed to handle the pressures of squatting and bending that come with weeding and hauling. As we grow older, we have less cushioning in our knees, so they bother us more.

Now In Bloom
Coreopsis rosea 'Sweet Dreams' was introduced in May at the Chelsea Flower Show in London. It should show up this summer in nurseries that carry plants from Blooms of Bressingham. Like other tickseeds, it is long-blooming and easy-care, with daisy-like little flowers that seem to float above the wiry foliage. What distinguishes this new plant is its white flowers centered with raspberry blotches, becoming more uniformly pink as they mature. It likes sun and well-drained soil, spreads into clumps 18 inches high and 2 feet wide, flowers freely, and attracts bees and butterflies.
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All this age stuff is depressing, because most people don't even get serious about gardening, nor have much time to do it, until middle age.

The good news is that even aging bodies can adapt. It is possible for people to build muscle into their 80s and 90s; it just takes a little longer than it used to (kind of like everything else). Endurance and strength should be the goals, and diligence is key. Simons suggests starting training early, with leg-strengthening exercises. Walking briskly enough to perspire and breathe hard, climbing stairs and the dreaded wall squats (snug your back against a wall with your feet 8 inches out from the wall, bend your legs as if you're sitting on a chair, and hold the position until you start to tremble) all build leg muscles. When I tell Simons my quads ache from carrying mulch in buckets up the front stairs, he points out that a way for me to train is to walk or run up those stairs over and over. This kind of training is a new trend toward functional exercise.

Most important to preventing back injury is strong abdominals, which stabilize our center of gravity, allowing us to reach out and up to prune, or twist to grab a weed, without injury. It isn't the surface muscles we need to worry about, but rather strengthening our transverse, or deepest abdominals, that attach in and around to support the back. Strong stomach muscles lead to good trunk control, which provides a stable platform for legs and arms.

Gardening mindfully is every bit as vital for preventing injury as muscular strength. Modified stress makes us strong, but the trick to staying injury free is figuring out how much stress is too much. Unfortunately, this means breaking into that fine flow of gardening work when you lose yourself for hours in the tasks at hand. That is a luxury gardeners can't afford. Simons tells his clients to think in terms of cycles of tasks, and to take an alarm clock into the garden to prevent getting carried away. Do different tasks for short periods — 10 to 15 minutes of weeding, then stand up and stretch and move on to pruning, raking or hauling for awhile.

Simons emphasizes that sore muscles, a gardener's springtime curse, aren't necessarily a bad thing. Life is movement, and sometimes sore muscles are the result. Gardeners can take comfort from the thought that while we need to train to prevent injury, our sport of preference is itself a functional exercise, for it is diversified, hard work and gets us out in the fresh air. What is required to survive in the world is core stabilization, endurance and balance, all of which we need for gardening, but also get from it.

Valerie Easton is manager at The Miller Horticultural Library. Her e-mail address is Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

Cover Story Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Now & Then Sunday Punch

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