Want a fun way to exercise? Then try gardening and its unique sense of satisfaction you get from digging in the dirt, transplanting your favorite perennials, or cutting homegrown flowers for summer bouquets.

Even your kids will love it - and eating the healthy veggies that they help grow.

But just don't think of gardening as just a hobby. Health experts say that flower-and-vegetable gardening and all sorts of lawncare can help get you fit. What's more, older women who garden have stronger bones than women doing every other type of exercise except weightlifting, according to at least one study.

Going nonstop

Charlie Nardozzi, a senior horticulturist with the National Gardening Association in South Burlington, Vt., isn't surprised by all the research backing up the health benefits of gardening. And, he adds, adding in these higher-level activities can raise the heart rate and increase the number of calories burned.

"Gardening is good exercise because it exercises a variety of muscle groups," Nardozzi says. "Most garden activities are moderate, such as raking, planting flowers, moving soil, or dragging bags of soil, but if you do a variety of these nonstop for 30 minutes, that constitutes a workout."

Of course, check with your doctor first before taking on any of these activities, some of which are pretty strenuous and can test your heart. 

Preventing bone loss

In addition to the calories you'll burn, you may also be preventing bone loss, says Dr. Lori Turner, a scientist at the University of Alabama's  Center for Metabolic Bone Disease in Tuscaloosa. In 2003, Turner studied what types of physical activity, including jogging, aerobics, swimming, gardening, among others, led to the strongest bones.

"The two activities that correlated with the highest bone density were weight-training and gardening," she says. "The exciting part for me was to find an activity that people like to do."

Moreover, the more people like to do an activity, the more they are likely to do it. Because garden fans  often set out with a specific goal in mind, they tend to do it longer, which might help explain the study results, Turner adds.

In addition to burning calories and maintaining bone strength, gardening also has other benefits. For starters, it gets people out in the sun, which helps the skin produce vitamin D.

Immediate gratification, satisfaction

There's also the immediate gratification of seeing the results of your hard work, or the satisfaction of displaying your own flowers or eating your homegrown vegetables. What's more, being outdoors around nature is very calming, and all that fresh air is good for getting oxygen into your system, Narduzzi, with the gardening association, says.

Gardening requires us to bend, stretch, lift and move in ways that we don't do everyday - or even thought our bodies could do.

Paula Kramer, an occupational-therapy expert at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, says thinking about good body mechanics and physical conditioning is tops before we start getting our gardens in shape.

 "Gardening is very good for working various muscle groups and even can bring up your heart rate," Kramer says. "But preventing injury or protecting a pre-existing injury is part of how occupational therapy fits in to every day life."