Each autumn, the culinary benefits of gardening overflow into our kitchens. Our pantry shelves fill with the many-colored fruits of the harvest: glowing jars of tomatoes and beans, golden braids of onions and garlic, winter squashes in rich greens, oranges and tans…and tucked away from light and moisture, bins of sustaining potatoes, beets, carrots and rutabagas.
In a good year, the wealth and security of this bounty can fill us with peace and satisfaction. Gardening also offers some less visible, but perhaps equally sustaining benefits — whether your garden is a small patio planter, a backyard vegetable garden or a plot in a community garden. It’s no coincidence that gardens aimed at interactive health and healing have been popping up in prisons, hospitals, nursing homes, and in community centers for homeless populations and at-risk youth. It turns out that deep sense of well-being you get from an afternoon weeding and pruning isn’t all in your head — though your head benefits too!
- Stress-relief and self-esteem: A Dutch study asked two groups to complete a stressful task. Afterwards, one group gardened for 30 minutes, while the other group read indoors. Not only did the gardening group report better moods than the reading group, they also had measurably lower cortisol levels. Cortisol, “the stress hormone”, may influence more than just mood: chronically elevated cortisol levels have been linked to everything from immune function to obesity to memory and learning problems and heart disease. It may be more than brain hormones causing higher self-esteem scores for gardeners: there’s no more tangible measure of one’s power to cause positive change in the world than to nurture a plant from seed to fruit-bearing.
- Heart health and stroke risk: Gardening may be just one way to achieve your target 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise each week — but gardening provides a rewarding motivation that makes it happen, unlike a treadmill, which invites associations with hamsters in wheels. A large Stockholm study showed that regular gardening cuts stroke and heart attack risk by up to 30% for those over 60. Raised beds can save the joints and extend possible gardening years for seniors, or for anyone wishing to garden more comfortably. Make sure to expose your limbs (without sunscreen) for just 10 minutes during midday gardening: this will give you enough vitamin D to reduce risks of heart disease, osteoporosis, and various cancers. Those with the lowest Vitamin D levels may be doubling their risk of dying of heart disease and other causes: and in most cases, too much time spent indoors is to blame. Try for 30 minutes of gardening a day: if your schedule won’t let you fit in half an hour at a stretch, try a quick 15 minutes in the morning, and another 15 after work. The evidence is clear: too much sitting is dangerous for your health, so break it up as much as you can with little spurts of activity.
- Hand strength and dexterity: As we age, diminishing dexterity and strength in the hands can gradually narrow the range of activities that are possible or pleasurable. Gardening keeps those hand muscles vigorous and agile without oft-forgotten exercises such as a physiotherapist might prescribe. Related research has inspired rehabilitative programs for stroke patients involving gardening tasks as a satisfying and productive way of rebuilding strength and ability. But don’t push your hands too far: gardening can also set the stage for repetitive stress injuries, tendonitis, and carpal tunnel. Practice hand-healthy gardening by using a few simple warm-ups, positioning your body comfortably and ergonomically, and changing tasks frequently before strain becomes evident. Alternate use of your right and left hands to balance your body — using your non-dominant hand is one of many exercises to keep your brain functioning well as you age.
- Brain health and Alzheimer’s risk: Researchers found daily gardening to represent the single biggest risk reduction for dementia, reducing incidence by 36%. One long-term study followed nearly 3000 older adults for 16 years, tracking incidence of all kinds of dementia and assessing a variety of lifestyle factors. Researchers found daily gardening to represent the single biggest risk reduction for dementia, reducing incidence by 36%. Another study estimated the risk reduction at 47%! Why does gardening make such a difference? Alzheimer’s is a mysterious disease, and the factors influencing its incidence and progression remain poorly understood. However gardening involves so many of our critical functions, including strength, endurance, dexterity, learning, problem solving, and sensory awareness, that its benefits are likely to represent a synthesis of various aspects.
- Immune regulation: This one is a wild card. Not only does the Vitamin D you’re soaking in from the summer sun help you fight off colds and flus, but it turns out even the dirt under your fingernails may be working in your favor! The “friendly” soil bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae — common in garden dirt and absorbed by inhalation or ingestion on vegetables — has been found to alleviate symptoms of psoriasis, allergies and asthma: all of which may stem from an out-of-whack immune system. This particular organism has also been shown to alleviate depression, so go ahead and get your hands dirty. Researchers are still speculating how our immune system may interact with our brains and play into a variety of mental health issues in addition to our ability to fend off infection: inflammation may provide the key link.
- Depression and mental health: Plenty of your friends and neighbors have probably mentioned what a “lift” they get from a morning’s sweat amongst the lettuces and radishes. To add professional legitimacy to anecdotal claims, the growing field of “horticultural therapy” is giving proven results for patients with depression and other mental illnesses. The benefits appear to spring from a combination of physical activity, awareness of natural surroundings, cognitive stimulation and the satisfaction of the work. To build the therapeutic properties of your own garden, aim for a combination of food-producing, scented, and flowering plants to nourish all the senses. Add a comfortable seat so you can continue to bask in the garden while you rest from your labors. Letting your body get a little hot and sweaty might also have hidden benefits: as devotees of hot baths and saunas can attest, elevated body temperatures are also correlated with increased feelings of well-being. Don’t forget to drink plenty of water and know your limits.
When we surround ourselves with growing plants, we’re getting more than “a nice view”. That sensory experience stirs mysterious regenerative processes deep in our bodies and minds. You may have heard of the two groups of patients recovering from surgery: one group looked out their windows at green trees, while the other had only a brick wall for scenery. You guessed it: the nature-view group healed significantly faster, needed less pain medication, and had fewer complications.
The biologist Edward O. Wilson calls this “biophilia”. We’re instinctively drawn to connect with other living, growing things; we want to feel part of the web of life. I can feel something happening when I walk in the woods, sit quietly on a mossy bluff, and most of all when I’m taking an active role in supporting life and growth as a gardener. I can’t always name the biological processes these experiences set in motion, but I’m grateful for the opportunities to support my health as well as produce some delicious food to share. And we haven’t even begun to touch on what happens to our bodies when we eat all those beautiful vegetables!
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