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Cultivating physical fitness

If you think weeding and pruning gets only your yard in shape, you're in for a big surprise. A regular program of gardening can help you lose weight, tone muscles, improve flexibility and prevent serious health problems. You will not only look and feel better, but your yard will be beautiful too.

Medical studies have found that moderate gardening is just as beneficial as jogging or aerobic classes in reducing heart attack risk, plus it burns almost as many calories as bicycling and jogging.

Older women who garden have stronger bones than those who engage in other forms of exercise, such as swimming and jogging, according to a study on osteoporosis by Lori Turner, assistant professor of health sciences at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends 30 minutes of housework or gardening four times a week to help prevent osteoporosis.

But before you grab your tools and race out to the yard for a marathon calorie-burning day of gardening, heed this advice: You should approach your aerobic gardening exercise like any other exercise program. This includes stretching leg, back, neck and arm muscles before and after activities and not overdoing it with strenuous tasks. If you have health concerns or are out of shape, check with your doctor before you begin your program.

Approaching gardening as exercise requires a different mind-set, says Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist at the National Gardening Association in South Burlington, Vt. Instead of spending hours mowing the lawn or planting a flower bed, divide gardening chores into 15 to 20 minute increments so that you use different muscle groups.

For instance, mow the lawn for 15 minutes, then weed for 15 minutes. Repeat chores as needed, but in 15-minute increments. "You're going to get it all done, but you'll do it in such a way that your body gets a full range of motion," he says.

You'll also prevent repetitive motion injuries by alternating strenuous tasks, such as digging, mowing, raking and hoeing, with passive activities, such as weeding, pruning and watering, Nardozzi says.

Jeffrey Restuccio, author of Fitness the Dynamic Gardening Way (Balance of Nature Publishing, $12.95), recommends starting with a 30-minute garden workout once a week, increasing to three times each week. If you're in excellent shape, you can extend each garden workout to one to two hours. Consider your yard the gym and your gardening chores as your aerobic workout, Restuccio says.

"With traditional gardening, the focus is on the plants. With aerobic gardening, the focus is on you," Restuccio says.

A typical workout should include a warmup with light pruning or simply walking around the yard, stretching, light exercise such as weeding or picking up debris, at least 20 minutes of more strenuous exercise (raking, digging, mowing) followed by more stretching and a cool-down period. Although gardening chores work the major muscle groups, the stomach area is often neglected. To tone stomach muscles, Restuccio suggests adding situps to your program _ just do them in your yard.

To maximize your workout, Restuccio says to exaggerate your movements and use different stances when raking, hoeing and weeding. You can work from a kneeling position on one or both legs, while seated or squatting. Alternate tools from one side to the other and always bend at the knees and not the back, he recommends.

Aerobic gardening might not build buns of steel or six-pack abs, but it offers a terrific alternative to working out at the gym. Research has shown that people are more likely to stick to an exercise program if it's enjoyable.

"The fact that gardening is fun and enjoyable makes aerobic gardening different from other activities like walking, running and exercise machines, which can be boring and monotonous for many people," Restuccio says.

Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a master gardener for Pinellas County. If you have a garden questions, e-mail (put Garden in the message window); or write: Yvonne Swanson, Garden Writer/Floridian, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.

Garden workout

To lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume. To lose 1 pound of fat, you will need to burn 3,500 more calories than you take in. Men typically lose weight faster than women because they have greater muscle mass, which is the body's primary source for burning calories.

Here is the number of calories burned in 30 minutes of activity in the yard or garden. The rates are based on a 180-pound person. Keep in mind that the number of calories burned depends on a person's weight and the type and intensity of activity. Even while doing the same activity, a heavier person will burn more calories than a thinner person.

Watering lawn or garden 61

Mowing lawn (riding) 101

Trimming shrubs (power) 142

Raking leaves and/or debris 162

Bagging leaves 162

Planting seedlings 162

Mowing lawn (push with motor) 182

Planting trees 182

Trimming shrubs (shears or pruners) 182

Weeding 182

Clearing land 202

Digging, spading, tilling 202

Laying sod 202

Chopping wood 243

Gardening with heavy power tools 243

Mowing lawn (reel mower) 243

Source: National Gardening Association, South Burlington, Vt.