I bet you never thought that gardening could be a good way to grow muscles as well as flowers. That's right, digging in the dirt, mowing the grass and pulling weeds can actually get you and your yard in better shape.
Most people say that time flies when they're working in the garden. They can be out there for 45 minutes to an hour and it doesn't seem like a whole lot of work. But think about it: All that bending, reaching, pulling and pushing can build up a light to moderate sweat, relieve tension and put you in a good mood. It's like having a gym right outside your back door.
In fact, gardening can burn up to 300 calories an hour, and it's a good form of resistance training. Turning a compost pile and digging holes in the ground provide a challenge to your muscles similar to lifting weights. Continuous raking, shoveling or hoeing strengthens your heart and lungs just like walking on a treadmill. And squatting down to pull out weeds or reaching overhead to prune trees improves flexibility and balance throughout your body.
By working on your lawn or flower garden most days per week, you can get enough physical activity to lower your risk for a variety of diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Also, since yardwork is a weight-bearing activity, it may help keep your bones strong and prevent osteoporosis.
You don't necessarily have to do all your gardening at once. Break it up into a few 20- to 30-minute sessions. The exercise will add up over the course of a day, and you may not realize how much physical activity you've actually done.
In gardening, just as in any new form of exercise, you'll be using different muscles. You may get a little sore after your first few times, so until your body gets used to it, take a 10-minute walk and then gently stretch your body for five minutes before getting started.
There are also some considerations to make gardening safer and easier on your body. To protect your back muscles, always bend at your knees--not your waist--when picking things up.
In addition, throw out your tools with handles that are too short, and get long-handled tools. They will help you avoid awkward bending positions that can strain your back. If you have arthritis or other conditions that make gripping difficult, easy-to-grasp tools are available in many gardening mail-order catalogs.
When you sweep and rake, don't twist at your waist. Instead, keep your knees slightly bent and plant your front foot in the direction you're turning, then turn your body. Frequently switch your stance from right to left, so you work both sides of the body evenly.
If getting down on the ground feels hard on your knees, place a foam kneeling pad under them. Also, alternate activities such as raking, digging and weeding to prevent repetitive motion injuries. As with strength training, remember to exhale when you lift heavy objects or tools.
Time spent in the garden can offer some things traditional exercise can't. It's a great activity for the whole family because it includes exercise, good nutrition (if it's a vegetable garden), family interaction and stress relief, plus it encourages an awareness of the environment, science and nature.
I remember the experience of planting a vegetable garden as a child. We'd watch the corn stalks get taller and taller until one day, the ears were ready to be picked and we could have corn-on-the-cob that night for dinner. It seemed like magic that we could actually grow something that tasted so good. On some other level, I learned that persistence and patience had delicious rewards.
There's nothing healthier than fresh-picked vegetables, since they have more nutrients than those that have been sitting on a supermarket shelf for days. Having this produce come from your own backyard will motivate you to cook more often. You'll know exactly how your food is prepared, which can save you a lot in hidden fat and calories. You won't be slaving over the stove either, because freshly picked vegetables have such a strong natural flavor that they taste good without a lot of fuss.
In the end, with a beautiful garden and a more fit body, the grass will definitely be greener on your side.
If you want to make gardening start to count as your main form of exercise, check out the National Gardening Assn. Web site at http://www.garden.org.
There are also several books on the subject, such as: "Fitness the Dynamic Gardening Way" (Balance of Nature Publishing, 1992), "Gardener's Fitness" (Taylor Publishing, 1999) and "Shaping Up America's Green Thumb" (Bradshaw Personal Fitness, 1998). The magazine American Gardener Magazine, published by the American Horticulture Society (http://www.ahs.org), is also helpful.
Michele Bender, a New York-based freelance writer, contributed to this column. Karen Voight is a Los Angeles-based fitness expert whose latest video is "Core Essentials." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears the first and third Mondays of the month.