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What's the first thing you think of when someone says the word 'fitness?' Do you envision a lean athlete picking up a shovel and throwing dirt effortlessly in the garden? You'd sure be in the minority if you did! Most of us think of jogging or cycling before we'd think of gardening. But gardening is a great way to exercise. Digging, stretching to pull out that nasty weed, raking, turning a compost pile--it's all a great way to work out in your garden.

The truly great thing about gardening for exercise is that you can use your whole body while you're working. Gardening involves a number of different exercises, including stretching, weightlifting, and a moderate cardiovascular workout. And research shows that gardening for 30-45 minutes several days a week has significant health benefits, such as decreasing the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, as well as contributing to healthier bones, muscles and joints. Elements of gardening, such as digging, weeding, trimming shrubs or mowing the lawn (with a push mower) requires the same amount of energy as other exercises such as walking, cycling, swimming or aerobics.

How many calories can you burn while you garden? According to Sherrie Rindells, horticulture specialist at Iowa State University, many gardening chores burn similar calories to more common fitness activities. However, she advises that, like most exercise programs, the activity must be maintained for a period of 30 minutes to be beneficial.

Digging and Spading
This will give you a moderate to heavy-intensity workout. It involves muscles in the upper body, back and legs. Women who dig and spade in their garden will burn 150 calories in a 30 minute period while men will burn around 197. This activity improves muscle strength and endurance.

Weeding the Flower Beds and Vegetable Garden
If you stoop while you weed, you can have a moderate workout for your legs, hips, buttocks and hamstrings. Women burn about 138 calories in a 30 minute period; men burn around 181.

Raking the Yard
Although this seems like a lot of work, raking provides a light to moderate workout of the arms, shoulders, back, hamstrings and buttocks. Women burn 120 calories in a 30 minute period and men burn 157 calories.

Planting Transplants, Shrubs and Trees
This gives your whole body a moderate workout. Women burn 135 calories every 30 minutes while men burn 177. Trimming and pruning bushes can also keep you in shape. Your hands, forearms, shoulders and upper back receive a moderate workout. Women burn 135 calories for a 30 minute period while men burn 177.

Gardening is definitely a great exercise to add to your week, especially in building strength and flexibility. It's a great companion to walking or another aerobic activity that will strengthen your heart. Think of your garden as a gym filled with all kinds of exercise equipment, ready to help you be strong and fit!

Excerpt from Well Being magazine, "Aerobic Gardening," March 10/2015