Gardening for Health
At some point we’ve forgotten how fun it is to play in the dirt. Numerous studies show that gardening is not only a tremendous source of happiness, but also a fountain of youth for your body and mind. It’s one of several “green activities” I love to do in the spring, when our bodies are just itching to get outside after a long, cold winter. If you are new to gardening or just want some ideas about how you can spend more time outside, you’ve come to the right place.
Health Benefits of Gardening
Ten-thousand years ago, gardening entirely changed the way humans live and eat. When our ancestors started to plant and cultivate fruits, vegetables and grains, humankind slowly graduated away from a nomadic society to a more sedentary one. Now with every food you could possibly grow sold at the grocery store – along with countless more already packaged and prepared – there is no need to have your own garden, right?
Gardening is so much more than fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers. In fact, I’d argue that the fruit of your labor (pun intended) isn’t actually the food, but rather a healthier mind and body. This is confirmed by countless studies, but I want to highlight a few in particular.
One of the more impressive studies tracked 2,800 people over the age of 60 for a 16-year period. It found that physical activity – including gardening – could lower the risk of dementia by as much as 36%.
Another study showed that gardening is a bare-knuckle stress fighter. All that digging, weeding, trimming, pruning – those menial tasks are actually huge stress relievers. This study showed that people who worked outside in their garden for 30 minutes (compared to people who stayed inside and read a book) not only reported being in a better mood afterward, but their blood tests showed lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
Gardening is also a great form of aerobic exercise. Gardening involves a variety of moments – digging, pulling weeds, twisting and bending, and reaching for tools. It works muscles in your body and builds your strength, stamina and flexibility. This also reaffirms why gardening is such a great stress reliever. Exercise is one of the best ways to chase the blues, whether you are just having a bad day or if you have depression or anxiety.
That last bit is crucial because it’s common for people to experience bouts of depression, especially once they reach their retirement years. Suddenly, you have all this free time and you aren’t interacting with as many people on a daily basis as you used to. Guess what? Gardening helps that too! I like to call gardens “retirement projects” to my patients who are Type-A go-getters and need something to sink their teeth into.
Finally, when you are gardening, you are grounding yourself to the earth – just you, the sun, the air, and the soil. Not only is it relaxing, but it dispels an invisible, omnipresent and dangerous toxin: electro-magnetic frequencies (EMFs). EMFs are by-products of an assortment of appliances, devices, and various electronic household items. Studies show that EMFs can skew your body’s biological clock – causing fatigue and sleeping disorders – and disrupt your blood sugar management.
On top of all of these health benefits, let’s not forget that after a long season of love and labor, you get a bounty of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers. So many, in fact, that you may have to share them with your neighbors, friends and family.
Tips for First-Time Gardeners
If you are new to gardening, or you want to get back into it, here are some tips to help you get started as soon as today:
- Start simple: Do some research about what plants grow in your area. Your local nursery would be a great source of information and a great place to get many of the supplies you need – seeds, tools, clothes, gloves and more. When deciding what you want to plant, remember that these small seeds will be plants that grow larger every day and need more care, especially in July when the summer heat is in full effect. Keep your first gardening season a simple one so you ensure that it’s a successful one.
- Protect yourself from the sun: Sunlight is a tremendous source of vitamin D, but always be careful of overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays—20 minutes of direct exposure is plenty. In addition to sunscreen, wear a hat that provides shade to your face and neck. Loose fitting clothes can block your skin from direct sunlight without restraining your movement or make you feel overheated.
- Pay attention to weather forecasts: Spring is the best time of year to start digging, but it’s also the rainiest time of year. Stay attuned to your local forecast so you can plan which days of the week will be best for working in your garden.
- Wear soft kneepads: All that time kneeling and digging can do a number on your knees. A simple pair of kneepads will prevent a lot of soreness. If you want to avoid kneeling altogether, there are a variety of garden stools, some of which function as tool caddies as well.
Other Green Activities
While gardening is one of the best green activities, there are many others. Consider making one or more of the following activities a part of your spring green routine.
- Visit local parks and nature trails: Most parks have walking trails and paths. If you live near several parks, make it a goal to explore all the trails. If you live far from a park, I encourage to walk outside wherever you can – even if it’s a stroll down your street or road.
- Visit farmers’ markets: If your grocery store doesn’t have affordable organic options, chances are that a farmers’ market will. You’ll find a variety of fresh produce, and also baked goods and arts and crafts made by the very people selling them. Farmers’ markets are a great way to be outside and buy fresh organic food, all while investing in your local community.
- Go on long picnics: Pack up some food, grab a comfortable blanket or some chairs and spend the day enjoying the outdoors. Bring binoculars, books, cards, walking shoes, whatever you want. Just don’t eat and leave. Switch up the food and picnic locations so you aren’t having the same meal at the same spot all the time.
- Nature photography: A good camera is no longer expensive and difficult to use. Heck, it’s likely that your phone has a better camera than the actual camera you had 10 years ago. And they allow you to zoom in on a single flower or zoom out for a panoramic view of a sunset. Put together a “nature photography scavenger hunt” in which you have to go out and take pictures of wildlife, flora, lakes, sunrises, sunsets, pastures and more. These pictures can be framed and hung in your house as a reminder to spend more time outside…and that you’re a budding artist with your own gallery!
Spring into Action!
If you’re in one of the northern states, you know this past winter was long, cold and cruel. I’m ecstatic that it’s over. But I’m even more thrilled about the idea of being outside more—whether it’s digging in my garden or walking at my local park. Being outdoors, especially in the wake of this bone-chilling winter, is a great way to tone up your body and brain and shake off the winter blues.
- Hayes, Kim. “5 Secret Health Benefits of Gardening.” AARP. Published July 14, 2017.
- Burm, Caitlin. “Benefits of Gardening for Seniors.” A Place for Mom. Published July 9, 2015.
- Simons, LA, et al. “Lifestyle Factors and Risk of Dementia: Dubbo Study of the Elderly.” Australasian Medical Publishing Company. Published January 16, 2006.