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 Gardening class used to combat arthritis issues

Next to walking, gardening is the most preferred form of exercise for arthritis sufferers. The Ohio State University Extension is developing a program to help garden lovers get the most out of the experience with the least amount of discomfort.

OSU Extension's Agricultural Enhancement Business Center received a $7,483 OSU CARES grant to develop "Gardening Isn't a Pain!" -- a cross-disciplinary educational effort that involves research-based knowledge about arthritis, the benefits of gardening and solutions to help individuals with arthritis more fully enjoy the hobby. The collaborative effort involves OSU Extension, Ohio State's College of Medicine and Public Health and the Northwestern Ohio Arthritis Foundation.

"We conducted two simple one-time programs in the past and we had 60 to 70 people show up for one. That was the moment for me," said Marie Matuszak, an OSU Extension ABE Center horticulturist. "I knew then how interested people were in this topic. They want to enjoy themselves in the garden without hurting themselves." The "Gardening Isn't a Pain!" program involves three elements: a medical overview of arthritis, gardening techniques, and physical preparations such as proper stretching and Tai Chi.

More than 2.5 million Ohioans suffer from arthritis, with nearly one-third limited in their activities due to the condition. Home gardening is an attractive form of therapy because of its ease of access, low maintenance and its exercise on the joints.

"The worst thing you can do if you have arthritis is to stop moving. People are most likely to continue exercising if it's something they enjoy," said Deborah Kegelmeyer, an assistant professor of clinical allied medicine for Ohio State's College of Medicine and Public Health. "People enjoy gardening and this program strives to keep them gardening."

A big aspect of "Gardening Isn't a Pain!," centers on ways to boost the benefits of gardening with as little stress on the joints as possible. Such elements include modifying the garden or using tools or equipment that target the right dose of exercise.

Matuszak suggests choosing plants that require low maintenance. That is, choose plants that minimize extensive deadheading or pruning, and choose the right plant for the right space.

"Folks will fall in love with a certain plant and if it's not planted in the right space it'll quickly outgrow that area and then you have problems with maintaining the plant's size," she said. "Also, choose plants that are less likely to trap blowing debris, especially if you live in an urban area."

Choosing the right equipment is also important to keep joint stress at a minimum. Tools with wider handles or more handle rubber are not as hard on the joints. Equipment, such as stools, helps gardeners get closer to the ground while exerting little pressure on hips and knees.

"Using wagons to carry tools or using a stool to take frequents rests or help one stand upright make gardening more enjoyable," said Matusak.