Gardening can be good for your physical and mental health

Gardening is arguably one of the most gratifying ways of interacting with nature. There is something about the instant gratification of seeing a section of bed cleared of pesky weeds, or the satisfaction from stepping back and admiring the perfectly pruned shrub. Then there are the aspects of gardening that need a little more patience before the big pay-off, like planting hundreds of bulbs in the fall and finally getting to see them sprout and bloom in early spring.

Besides the aesthetic value of creating your own green space, gardening also has health benefits.

Florence Nightingale tends to wounded soldiersFlorence Nightingale, one of our country’s most celebrated nurses, was a vocal advocate of the idea that flora had the propensity for healing and rejuvenation. In her text Notes on Nursing, she wrote about how feverish patients would wax euphoric over the bright colors of a flower bed, while others would languish “not being able to see out of the window, and the knots in the wood being the only view.” (You can see the full text here.) She knew instinctively back then what scientists are able to prove now: gardening and green spaces can have positive effects on our health.

The Physical Benefits of Gardening

Woman works in sunny gardenIt’s Good Exercise

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), moderate-intensity level activity for 2.5 hours each week can reduce the risk for obesity, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, stroke, depression, colon cancer, and premature death. Guess what the CDC considers gardening? That’s right: a moderate-intensity level activity. Also, studies show that people who choose gardening as their activity — as opposed to something like walking or biking — are more likely to exercise 40-50 minutes longer on average (probably because they want to finish whatever task they started.) Gardening not only builds strength, but it can also help you get better sleep and maintain a healthy weight, two things that become increasingly important as you age.

Great Way to Get Vitamin D

Working outdoors also increases the amount of time you spend in the sun. If wearing proper protection against UV rays and sunburn, exposure to sunlight can be extremely beneficial because it helps your body produce Vitamin D, which helps to strengthen your bones and bolster your immune system.

Gardening Can Lead to a Better Diet

We should all eat more fresh, healthy produce. If you are able to grow your own herbs, fruits or vegetables, then it is more likely that you will eat those items. Also, you can be assured that it is fresh (there is nothing better than a grape tomato still warm from the sun that tastes slightly like the leaves, and I cannot be convinced otherwise), and hasn’t been treated with harmful pesticides. 

Aid in Physical Recovery

As Florence Nightingale astutely found, gardening can also aid in recovery — whether from surgery, addiction, or other ailments. In one 2014  study, people in an addiction rehabilitation program were given an opportunity to choose between art or gardening as their form of natural therapy. People who chose gardening completed the rehab program at a higher rate and reported a more satisfying experience than those who chose art. 

In one intriguing anecdote from an article about gardening’s health benefits, a woman who suffered from severe physical limitations after a stroke was able to use gardening as physical therapy, and was eventually able to achieve incredible rehabilitative successes.

The Mental Benefits of Gardening

Gardening Reduces Anxiety and Depression

Couple laugh as they gardenIn addition to strengthening your body through regular exercise, gardening is getting more credit for its ability to improve mental health. In a recent study published in the Journal of Health Psychology, participants were asked to perform a stressful task and then were allowed to “decompress” by either reading indoors or gardening. Test subjects that gardened experienced a more significant decrease in stress levels — as measured by salivary cortisol levels and self-reporting — than those that were assigned to read. In addition, those who gardened reported an improvement in their positive mood, while those who read experienced a further deterioration of their moods during reading.

One explanation is that soil naturally contains M. vaccae, a healthy bacteria which, when inhaled, can boost levels of serotonin and decrease anxiety. In one multi-year study, people with depression participated in a 12-week “horticultural intervention” program. Afterward, researchers measured several aspects of their mental health, including depression symptoms, and found that all of them showed significant improvement. Even more impressive was the fact that those improvements lasted for months after the intervention ended.

Gardening Lowers Your Risk of Dementia

Gardening can also help lower the risk of dementia by 36 percent, according to a 2006 study that tracked more than 2,800 people over the age of 60 for 16 years and concluded that physical activity, particularly gardening, could reduce the incidence of dementia in future years.

What Are You Waiting For?

Raised bedsIt is estimated that nearly 1 in 3 people in the United States actively garden as a hobby, which is surprisingly few considering all the benefits that can be derived. All you need is a small area of land, some sunlight and water, and a little bit of elbow grease. 

For those who suffer from mobility issues, container gardening and different methods for raised beds have seen a number of improvements in the past few years. Community gardens are an excellent opportunity as well, because they not only get you out there playing in the dirt, improving the area and contributing much-needed green space in urban areas, but they can also help stave off loneliness by building a tighter-knit community. 

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