With the holidays approaching, and the extra pounds that come with them, Jeffrey Restuccio has some advice for gardeners: your favorite...

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With the holidays approaching, and the extra pounds that come with them, Jeffrey Restuccio has some advice for gardeners: your favorite hobby can also be your best workout.

Restuccio is a fitness buff who preaches the gospel of aerobic gardening. That means engaging in low intensity, sustained workouts feeding on oxygen for energy. Aerobic exercise builds endurance, burns fat and strengthens the heart and lungs.

Restuccio doesn’t believe in buying fancy exercise equipment or pricey gym memberships. Instead, he recommends swapping your treadmill for a lawnmower, your stair-climber for a spade.

“The idea of using growing things as a component of fitness is a timely one,” says Restuccio, from Cordova, Tenn., near Memphis. “Forget the term ‘garden work.’ Instead, think of it as ‘garden exercise.’ “

Growing food or raising flowers is less important than regular exercise for gardeners, he believes. “Even if you’re not the best at growing things, don’t worry about it. Treat gardening like a workout. Get out there and lose a couple of pounds.”

Gardening can be strenuous if not done properly. Overdo it and you’ll harvest an assortment of aches and pains, including backaches, stiffness and muscle spasms. You can avoid much of that by adopting a few preventive aerobic principles.

Before starting, spend time stretching your lower back, Achilles tendons and hips as you would for running, Restuccio says. “Older people should take into account what they can and cannot do and modify gardening to fit their own personal needs,” he says. By that, he means watch your posture. “Don’t stoop. Bend your knees or squat. If you’re having trouble reaching down, do your gardening in raised beds. Use tools with longer handles. Don’t lift what you can’t handle. Have someone else do it for you.”

Lunge, weed, repeat

Six easy gardening exercises

1. Bend one leg, knee to the ground, keep the other foot flat.

2. Bend both legs in a kneeling position.

3. Squatting. This may be uncomfortable at first but gets easier with practice.

4. Lunge and weed. Using a hand weeder, you will lunge with one leg straight back and bend one knee in front of you.

5. Sitting. If your knees, feet or legs won’t permit much bending then sit and garden. Exercise your arms and waist. Use long-handled tools.

6. Standing. With knees bent, back straight in a crouch position, rake in a wide, sweeping motion.

Source: Jeffrey Restuccio, www.ritecode.com/aerobicgardening

Aerobic gardening is done best with shorter but more frequent workouts, an hour or so per day rather than two full days a week, he says.

Begin with light exercise — pruning, raking or gathering fallen branches. Pick up the pace gradually, boosting your heart rate. “Try not to dig or rake with only your shoulders,” Restuccio says. “Use a range of motion; your entire body.”

Stretch again before calling it quits, then cool off. You should be burning anywhere from 300 to 600 calories per hour, depending upon the intensity of the workout.

Restuccio recommends wearing a heart-rate monitor while you exercise. “Most people don’t quantify what they’re doing while they garden,” he says. “Calculate your optimal exercise weight, and balance that against your activity. After two or three seasons, you won’t have to think about it again.”

Fitness lifestyles need not go dormant when gardens do. Climb stairways. Chop and stack wood for your stove or fireplace rather than buy bundles at the corner store. Plant a tree. Stir the compost pile.

“Gardening burns about three times more energy than being sedentary,” says William Haskell, a professor of medicine at Stanford Prevention Research Center in Palo Alto, Calif. “Gardening activity can help in preventing heart attacks and strokes, colon cancer and Type 2 diabetes,” Haskell says. “It’s important to do some resistance exercise. That maintains muscle mass and muscle strength. It also helps maintain bone minerals and bone strength. The benefits are proportional to how hard you exercise.”

Gardeners generally are older than the general population, so it’s not much of a reach to use gardening as a primary way of keeping fit, Haskell says. He suggests seeing a doctor, however, before doing anything strenuous. “Just a phone call or a comment while visiting a doctor’s office will do,” he says. “Especially if anyone has a heart or diabetes history.”

Gardening as exercise is good motivation for people to do what they should be doing anyway, Haskell says.

“Gardening is a way to beat that old adage ‘use it or lose it.’ As we age, the only way we can maintain muscle mass is by exercise. Doing that will help you maintain your independence through life.”