When Kay Collins planted her garden, she didn't immediately see the connection between tilling the soil and losing weight. Now she does.
"Gardening is a lot like watching your diet," says Collins, of Orange, who dropped 15 pounds in six months. "Tend to your garden on a regular basis and your plants will bloom for you, just as you will lose weight if you watch your diet every day."
Working in the garden and staying on a weight-loss program definitely go hand-in-hand for Collins, a member of Weight Watchers International, which has taught more than 25 million members how to lose weight.
"Gardening takes my mind off food, and when I see a weed growing and pull it, it reminds me to stay on my program or else I'll be just like the weeds and start growing too," Collins says.
Karen Miller-Kovach, lead scientist for Weight Watchers in Long Island, N.Y., agrees that gardening relates closely to nutrition and exercise--the cornerstones of weight loss.
"Every time you tend to your garden, it serves as a reminder to eat more vegetables," Miller-Kovach says. "When you make yourself a priority and nurture yourself, you lose weight."
Tending plants is also a viable form of physical fitness.
"Many people mistakenly believe that you must run a marathon to get adequate physical activity to lose weight, but that's not true," Miller-Kovach says.
Gardening chores such as digging, hedging, mowing and raking burn more kilocalories per minute of activity than golfing and gymnastics, she says.
"A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. showed that dieting plus lifestyle activities such as gardening is as effective at reducing weight and increasing health as dieting and formal aerobic training," Miller-Kovach says.
Rather than the '80s no-pain, no-gain attitude that embraced high-aerobic exercise, the trend today centers on less-intense activities--such as gardening, walking, swimming and social dancing--that still provide cardiovascular benefits.
Experts say gardening teaches patience, which is necessary in a lifelong plan to maintain a healthy weight. Unlike "immediate-success" claims of some weight-loss plans, gardening to drop pounds takes time, and that's good, Miller-Kovach says.
"Health experts have established that modest, sensible weight loss of 5% to 10% of body weight occurs in two to three months time, which is when you'll begin to see a payoff in the garden," she says. "Just as a dieter is beginning to lose weight and feel better physically and psychologically, the garden will begin to bloom and produce vegetables."
Gardening provides another benefit as well: It reduces stress. Working with plants and soil helps people vent their frustrations on clods of dirt instead of people, and it's relaxing.
"Working in the garden is really a form of meditating," says Miller-Kovach. "It gives you the mental break you need while you get something productive done, and as a bonus, you don't think of eating."
Other benefits? Unlike some activities, gardening has no time restrictions. People can work around plants between sunup and sunset, and for most of their life. There are no gym fees to pay and no need to buy expensive workout outfits or equipment--just a few basic tools that can be bought at a garage sale.
It's no surprise gardening is the most popular hobby in the U.S., says June Clark, a horticulturist and perennial-garden designer who created a basic design for a plot that is both visually appealing and easy to grow and care for. Called the Weight Watchers Victory Garden for Dieters, it highlights the 'Success' rose and other perennials available through Jackson & Perkins.
"Something as simple as a pot of plants can help you [forget about your troubles] and remind you to take care of yourself," she says.
Clark offers these tips for getting the most out of tending your garden:
* Water well. Not only is watering relaxing for you, it's essential to your garden. Newly planted gardens will need much more water than established ones.
* Maintenance is key. Twenty pounds and an overgrown yard are both hard to get under control. Pruning and weeding on a regular basis will give you a workout and make your garden look its best. Remove spent flower blossoms and you'll have constant blooming. Prune out diseased, damaged or dead wood and your plants will have strong, healthy growth.
Weeds are like junk food; replace them with desirable plants.
* Keep a schedule. Just as you must watch what you eat on a daily basis, it's important to care for your garden regularly. Taking a few minutes each day to prune, pull weeds, water and fertilize adds up to big benefits.
* Plant your favorites. You'll be more likely to tend flowers and vegetables that you enjoy.
* Be patient. It takes time for weight to come off and for a garden to bloom. It may look as if nothing is happening, but then you'll notice a change.
To find a Weight Watchers meeting near you, call (800) 651-6000 or visit its Web site at http: //www.weightwatchers.com.
To order the 'Success' rose, or any of the plants in the Victory Garden, call Jackson & Perkins at (800) 292-4769. The Web sit is http://www.jacksonandperkins.com.