Mounting evidence suggests that direct experience with nature offers a wide range of health benefits and more than just an enjoyable pastime or, for some of us, a nagging chore – gardening in particular can transform us both mentally and physically.
A 2017 meta-analysis published in the journal Elsevier looked at how gardening can be beneficial for our health, and suggests that it can improve our physical, psychological and social wellbeing which, from a long-term perspective, can alleviate and prevent some of the chronic health issues facing today's society.
"Gardening has stood the test of time. Especially nowadays when technology is running our lives, leaving our phones indoors and stepping outdoors to garden is a great way to counteract the effects of excessive digital screen time," says psychologist Breanna Sada.
So, what do we gain when we begin to awaken the gardener within?
There are a few things in the process of gardening that not only reduce stress, but help to prevent it from developing in the first place. "In order to manage stress, first and foremost you need to take a break from what's causing it, and gardening is a great way to do that as you're absorbed in the task at hand and not thinking about anything else," explains gardening expert Jane Clarke.
Florist Yvette Timmins agrees that it's our focus on gardening that helps us to slow down, shifting our minds away from the mental chatter to the sensory experience of the visual beauty and scents that surround us. Breanna adds, "Gardening has similar impacts on our stress levels as other relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, as it naturally brings us into the present moment, reduces cortisol levels in the body and subsequently improves mood."
"To avoid gardening becoming a burden and consequently defeating the purpose of relaxation, keep it low-maintenance, don't have high expectations and do some research beforehand so you know what you should be planting according to season," suggests Yvette.
Pulling weeds, digging, planting, raking and trimming are all incidental exercises that give us the chance to walk around, bend and stand, and this expends energy and burns calories.
"Digging, for example, burns almost 400 calories per hour, and it also works your shoulders, arms and back, while other activities like watering, hoeing or lifting bags of mulch can burn between 150 to 300 calories," says Jane. "So it's safe to say it can be better than going to the gym, as it also helps you develop flexibility, endurance and strength."
Gardening helps to keep our mind sharp in multiple ways. A 2016 study published in IOS Press found that participants (aged 78 on average) who engaged in a range of activities, including gardening, dancing and riding on an exercycle, experienced larger brain volumes, which correlated to a 50% reduction in their risk of Alzheimer's dementia.
Those people who already had mild cognitive impairment related to Alzheimer's also saw a boost in brain volume. Further research supports that the number of gardening-based mental health interventions is increasing, as it reduces symptoms of anxiety and depression, and increases attention span and mental clarity.
"In winter, it's a great way to get outdoors and protect yourself from the spike of seasonal depression – also known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or the 'winter blues' – and to increase the serotonin levels responsible for keeping the brain balanced," says Yvette.
"Furthermore, gardening promotes peaceful rest, and a good night's sleep supports cognitive functions such as memory and concentration. The physical activity will tire you out and positively benefit your sleep patterns, plus the boost of sunlight will increase melatonin, the sleep hormone responsible for inducing sleep," says Jane.
"Gardening allows you to reap the benefits of the end result, so even if you're not a big fan of healthy eating, you'll still be eager to taste your own produce," says Jane. "It'll also be much healthier than what's on supermarket shelves, which will be beneficial for your health."
Studies show that school-based gardening can increase the amount of fruit and vegetables that children eat, and increases their healthy eating as adolescents. Gardening also increases vegetable consumption in older adults, compared to non-gardeners.
"When you're gardening, in addition to learning new skills and acquiring knowledge, the pride you feel when your efforts pay off in the end is important, as it builds your self-esteem – the key to resilience," explains Breanna. "This gives you a sense of purpose in life and can inspire an intrinsic sense of optimism if it's lost in the face of chronic illness or pain."
Research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that for cancer survivors, in addition to increasing physical activity and fruit and vegetable intake, gardening enhanced feelings of self-worth. The study identified this as possibly being a direct result of the healthy behaviours that gardening offers, which are holistic and provide meaning.
"When you're deciding what to plant, where to plant it and what companion plants to include, it's a reward for your creativity," says Jane. Additionally, taking care of something is one of the most fulfilling things we can do in life.
"As soon as you plant a seed, you watch it day after day, nurture it and hope it will grow healthy," Jane explains. "This becomes a life-affirming experience, as being connected with nature and to its life cycles means you never stop hoping – and nature keeps returning that hope to us."
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