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Helpful hints to keep back healthy while gardening

It's easy to spot people uncomfortably hunched over in their gardens. But how easy is it to find a gardener who is kneeling on knee pads pulling weeds, or doing gardening warm-ups in their front yard?

According to the National Gardening Association, about 40 million U.S. households have a garden.

A hobby for many people, gardening can also be an intense exercise routine, using all of the major muscle groups in the human body. Legs, buttocks, stomach, arms, shoulders, neck, and back all get a workout. And, like any exercise, gardening requires stretching as a warm-up and the use of proper form while shoveling, raking, digging, lifting, or pulling weeds.

Barry Taylor, DC, an assistant professor at Northwestern College of Chiropractic in Bloomington, Minn., has suggestions for getting the most out of your gardening-exercise experience:

? When buying and preparing soil, choose smaller, lighter bags and lift with bent knees and a straight back. Use a rear-tine tiller on the soil to take the strain off your back muscles, or have someone till for you if you are not normally physically active;

? Do not stay in a bent-over position too long. Stand up, stretch and walk around every 10 minutes;

? Kneel down instead of bending over for prolonged periods and use knee pads to protect your knees;

? Use a lightweight, long-handled shovel or spade to reduce back strain; and

? As with all exercise, drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration.

Exercise needs to be a year-round, regular activity that always includes plenty of stretching. Taylor strongly urges people to take a proactive approach and exercise more often. "Gardening properly and safely will help muscles grow stronger," says Taylor. "Not only will your muscles gain strength, you will burn calories as well -- up to 300 calories per hour of gardening."