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12 Subtle & Unexpected Benefits of Tending a Garden

12 Subtle & Unexpected Benefits of Tending a Garden

There are a great many reasons to get to work in the garden, and, for the most part, these are fairly straightforward and obvious: gardening can be a source of fresh food, it greens up your outdoor space with beautiful blooms, it gets you outside and in view of nature, and ultimately, it is so satisfying to nurture and care for plant life.

This last point is important since it drives at the heart of why we do it in the first place – to feel a connection to other living things. Biophilia is the name given to the instinctive bond that humans have with the rich tapestry of life, an innate attraction to the natural world. Green environments are a cure for what ails us on so many different levels, and actively engaging with that space, as in the garden, is eminently good for the mind and for the body.

The deeper benefits of gardening are less evident at first glance. Read on to discover the hidden ways gardening is an elixir for good living.

1. Homegrown Food is Tastier & More Nutritious

Food that is grown in your own backyard or in a community garden is about as fresh as it gets. And fresher equals tastier, especially when it is ripened on the vine. There is nothing quite like biting into the first plump and juicy tomato of the season or the fragrant sweetness of a just-plucked strawberry.

By harvesting food at the time of peak ripeness, fruits and vegetables picked by the home gardener are teeming with more vitamins, antioxidants, fiber, minerals, and trace elements than those that have traveled far and wide. Typically, store-bought produce is harvested before the food reaches maturity and this spells a loss of vital nutrients.

Industrial agricultural practices have changed remarkably over the past 50 years. From prizing aesthetics over function, newer storage and ripening techniques, and the use of chemical fertilizers, purchased produce is less nutritious than it once was. Take this startling example: an adult woman in 1951 could eat just two peaches to meet her vitamin A needs; today, she would have to consume nearly 53 peaches to achieve the same effect!

2. Food Gardeners Eat More Fruits & Vegetables

Among the more pleasurable ways to prevent chronic disease is to eat more fruits and vegetables. And yet, only 1 in 10 Americans are getting the recommended 5 to 9 servings per day. Meeting the daily requirement is difficult for some, but less so for gardeners who consume 40% more fruits and veggies each day than non-gardeners and are 3.5 times more likely to meet (and exceed) the dietary guidelines.

And then there’s that daily ritual of parents everywhere to cajole, demand, or plead with their children to eat their greens. But it turns out that, just like adults, kids who grow their own food eat more fruits and vegetables on average. What’s more, kids who help out in the garden have improved attitudes toward produce and a willingness to taste new things. Gardening habits that are developed in childhood often form a lifelong appreciation of nature and horticulture and kids who eat their greens are much more likely to consume more fruits and vegetables as adults.

3. Gardening Burns 200 – 600 Calories per Hour

All the assorted tasks that go hand in hand with gardening – digging, tilling, mixing soil, weeding, pruning, watering, turning the compost, transplanting seedlings, applying fertilizers, and harvesting – together these and other gardening activities add up to a good amount of physical activity.

Ranging from moderate to low intensity exercise that works the upper and lower body, one study found that three hours of gardening is the equivalent of an intense one-hour workout at the gym. Depending on your weight, the activity, and its intensity, gardening has been clocked at burning anywhere between 200 to 400 calories per hour for light gardening tasks (planting and weeding) and 400 to 600 calories per hour for heavy yard work (landscaping and hauling soil).

Best of all, gardening is goal-oriented. Running on a treadmill can make you feel like a hamster in a wheel, but expending energy in the garden is purposeful and productive. It confers a tangible sense of achievement that usually only comes from seeing the results of your work.

4. Gardeners Maintain Healthy Body Weights

Perhaps it’s because gardening is physically demanding or maybe it’s a result of eating more fruits and vegetables, but studies have shown that the body mass index (BMI) of gardeners is significantly lower than those of their non-gardening peers.

Researchers compared BMIs from each of the 198 gardeners in the study with three control groups: neighbors, siblings, and spouses. They found that on average, gardeners measured two BMI points lower than non-gardeners, which translates to a weight difference of 11 to 16 pounds.

5. Gardeners Get Vitamin D

While the nation struggles to get enough vitamin D, gardeners are getting it the old fashioned way: by simply spending time in the sun. Just 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure between the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. a few times a week will give you your vitamin D fix. A vitamin D deficiency has been linked to a slew of illnesses like heart disease, cancer, dementia, multiple sclerosis, and depression.

But vitamin D isn’t all about prevention. This steroid hormone strengthens bones, regulates insulin levels, boosts the immune system, and promotes good cardiovascular health.

6. Gardening Prolongs Life

Gardening and other do-it-yourself activities can increase longevity according to research published in 2013. The study, performed in Sweden on 4,000 sixty year olds, recorded daily activities, assessed cardiovascular health, and measured blood sugars, insulin levels, and blood clotting factors over the course of 12 ½ years.

Of the study’s participants who were most physically active on a daily basis, researchers noted a 27% decrease in the risk of heart attack or stroke. Overall, there was a 30% reduced risk for death from all causes for those who engaged in routine activities, like gardening.

7. Gardening Keeps Hands Strong

Hand strength is one of those abilities that is easy to take for granted when you have it. Range of motion, forearm muscles, and grip and pinch strength tend to weaken as we get older, and scientists are now using hand strength as a metric to gauge a person’s “true age”. Specifically, low grip strength has been associated with premature mortality, the development of a disability, and an increased risk of complications after surgery.

If nothing else, working in the garden is extremely hands-on. Researchers at Kansas State University found that older adults who garden have better hand strength than their non-gardening counterparts. Pinching deadheads, squeezing pruning shears, and gripping a spade are among the tasks that helps keep those hands nimble and dexterous.

8. Gardeners Come in Regular Contact with Good Bacteria

Humans did not evolve in a vacuum. For millennia, we have lived alongside the microorganisms that inhabit our bodies, forging a mutually-beneficial relationship whereby we provide them a place to live and they keep us healthy. Of the 100 trillion cells in the human body, only 1 in 10 a purely human – the rest are bacteria, viruses, and other microbes.

In our age of cleanliness and hyper-sanitization, many of these “old friends” have been beaten back, which has in turn has caused a rise in autoimmune and chronic inflammatory diseases like asthma, arthritis, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, depression, and cancer.

One of the good guys, Mycobacterium vaccae, is a benign bacterium that is readily found in soil. You breathe it in when you spend time in nature and ingest it when you eat food grown in it. It thrives especially in dirt that has been enriched with organic matter, like a garden.

M. vaccae strengthens the immune system by stimulating immune cells in the body. In effect, it makes the body less susceptible to inflammation. Not only that, but M. vaccae has been found to elevate mood and reduce anxiety by triggering a release of serotonin – a brain chemical responsible for mood regulation. And because serotonin is associated with learning, tending a garden could even make you smarter.

9. Gardening Relieves Stress

The theory of restorative environments put forth by Stephen Kaplan informs us that being in the presence of green spaces allows our minds to rest. The idea is that much of our lives are taken up by focused concentration (which takes effort) and this prolonged attention eventually becomes fatigued, leading to stress and irritability. Being in nature, however, offers respite from this “directed attention” by engaging our minds with an effortless form of attention he calls “fascination”. The sounds, smells, sights, and other stimuli of being outside allow us a personal escape from our hectic lives and provides an opportunity for quiet reflection.

Putting this theory to the test, researchers found that gardening offers powerful stress relief and is far more effective in alleviating anxiety than other leisure activities. In the study, participants performed a stressful task and afterward were randomly assigned to 30-minutes of outdoor gardening or indoor reading. Measuring the stress hormone cortisol, the researchers noted that, while both groups had decreases in cortisol levels during the recovery period, the gardening group’s stress levels were much lower than the reading group. When asked how they felt, the gardeners reported a complete return to positive mood while the reading group stated that their mood had actually worsened.

10. Gardeners are Happier

Spending just one session in the garden is enough to dramatically boost self-esteem and mood, according to a case study published in the Journal of Public Health. Regardless of how often you garden or how much time you devote to gardening, the curative effects were clear: gardeners reported better health, experienced less depression and fatigue, and had more vigor and vitality.

The use of therapeutic horticulture as a treatment for depression has shown a lot of promise too. Based on the self-reports of clinically depressed subjects, researchers found the severity of depression declined during a 12-week gardening program and its curative effects persisted for up to three months after the program’s completion. The researchers noted that this treatment was most effective for individuals who felt immersed in the gardening tasks, which helped keep their attention in the present and prevented rumination and negative thoughts.

11. Gardening Stimulates the Mind

More and more, horticulture therapies are being employed by hospitals and out-patient clinics as an effective treatment for traumatic illnesses, such as strokes and brain injuries, when patients experience cognitive deficits. It improves memory, concentration, attention span, language skills, and helps people regain lost abilities and learn new things.

While gardening can help rehabilitate, it also can help prevent the onset of debilitating brain diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s. Affecting 47.5 million people worldwide, the risk of developing dementia doubles every five years after the age of 65.

In an attempt to identify lifestyle choices that reduce that risk, researchers followed 2,805 men and women aged 60 or older for 16 years and found that daily gardening reduced the risk of developing dementia by 36%. These results were replicated in another study which identified traveling, knitting, and gardening as invaluable ways to keep the mind active and ward off cognitive decline.

12. Gardening Fosters Empathy

The type of environment we immerse ourselves in truly affects us in subtle, unseen ways. Spending time around plants not only benefits our physical and mental health, but it also improves our relationship with others as well.

Immersion in natural environments predicated greater feelings of compassion, empathy, generosity, and a deeper bond with the community, according to a study published in 2009. By contrast, those who viewed man-made structures, like buildings and roads, placed a higher value on extrinsic, self-seeking things like wealth and fame and were less considerate and charitable with others.

And surely, this world could stand to be a kinder, gentler place.