Easing into the spring garden

Pansies, petunias and ripe, red tomatoes; there's nothing more satisfying than beautifying your yard or preparing a patch of rich soil for a summer yield of home-grown vegetables. But how many times have you paid dearly for this pleasure with back and joint pain after a few hours spent bending over, digging and kneeling?

Stretching before and after gardening can increase flexibility, relieve muscle fatigue and prevent injury. Below are a few stretching exercises to help condition your body for the joys of spring. As with any stretching exercise, be gentle; never bounce. Be sure to warm up with a few minutes of cardio exertion — a brisk, short walk or marching in place — before you begin.

Tips for healthy gardening

Do the heavier tasks first; moving soil, carrying heavy plants, digging.

When lifting, bend from the knees using thigh muscles. Use a wide, balanced stance. Keep back straight, with object held close to the body. Avoid twisting.

When bending over, keep your head straight and squat or kneel into your work position.

When using long-handled tools, stand straight, keeping knees relaxed. When turning, pivot with feet, rather than twisting the back.

Whenever possible, use a wagon or wheelbarrow to move debris or transport gardening materials.

Thanks to Beverly Layer for serving as our model this month.

Abdominals -

important support for the back

1. Lie on your back on a smooth surface.

2. Tighten stomach muscles - imagine pulling your bellybutton downward toward your spine.

3. Keeping abdominal muscles tight, alternately lift and lower feet in a marching motion.

4. Add arm movements by straightening opposite arm (right leg, left arm) overhead in a gentle reaching motion.

5. Perform two sets, one minute each. Keep abs tight and breathe.

Back and shoulder stretch -

improves flexibility in "reaching" muscles

1. Stand facing a tree, railing or fence post. Feet should be shoulder-width apart.

2. Grab post with both hands. Round shoulders and back while holding onto post until you feel your muscles stretch gently.

3. Perform two sets, holding each stretch for at least 30 seconds.

Upper body stretch -

loosens and strengthens lifting and digging muscles

1. Stand next to a wall, fence or post.

2. With your right elbow bent, lay forearm flat against surface.

3. Maintaining contact, turn your body away until you feel a stretch in chest and shoulder. Hold for at least 30 seconds. Repeat with other arm. Perform two sets on each side.

Hip stretch -

increases lower-body flexibility

1. Holding onto a shovel handle or tree for balance, cross one ankle in front of your knee.

2. Gently lower into a sitting position on one leg, stretching back of hip area. Hold for at least 30 seconds.

3. Repeat with other leg. Perform two sets.

Quad stretch -

loosens and strengthens thigh muscles

1. Touching a wall, fence or tree with your right hand for balance, stand on your right leg.

2. With left hand, grab your left ankle. Keeping knees close, gently stretch the front part of your thigh. Hold for at least 30 seconds.

3. Repeat with other leg. Perform two sets.

Cindy Quick Wilson is a certified trainer at Women's Fitness Company in Medford.

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