Modern living has driven a concrete wedge between us and the natural world, and many are starting to connect the dots, recognizing that a connection with the land is vital for our well-being.
Scientists have also concluded gardening provides a number of valuable health benefits, spanning from stress relief to improved brain health, better nutrition, exercise and weight loss. As noted in a 2017 meta-analysis of 22 studies:1
“There is increasing evidence that gardening provides substantial human health benefits … Here, we present the results of a meta-analysis of research examining the effects of gardening, including horticultural therapy, on health.
We performed a literature search to collect studies that compared health outcomes in control (before participating in gardening or non-gardeners) and treatment groups (after participating in gardening or gardeners) …
Studies reported a wide range of health outcomes, such as reductions in depression, anxiety, and body mass index, as well as increases in life satisfaction, quality of life, and sense of community.
Meta-analytic estimates showed a significant positive effect of gardening on the health outcomes both for all and sets of subgroup studies, whilst effect sizes differed among eight subgroups.
Although Egger’s test indicated the presence of publication bias, significant positive effects of gardening remained after adjusting for this using trim and fill analysis. This study has provided robust evidence for the positive effects of gardening on health. A regular dose of gardening can improve public health.”
Korean researchers have confirmed that gardening counts as moderate-to-high-intensity exercise for children,2 and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2008 physical activity guidelines for Americans classifies gardening as a moderate-to-high-intensity activity, with activities such as digging being a high-intensity.3
The second edition of these guidelines,4 issued in 2018, also includes “heavy gardening” as an example of a recommended muscle-strengthening activity. Indeed, as noted by the Poughkeepsie Journal:5
“Lifting and carrying 40-pound bags of mulch, stretching into hard-to-reach places to do weeding or pushing a lawnmower around demonstrates that gardening can be a physically demanding workout. You can burn serious calories doing gardening activities …
According to caloriecounter.com, a person weighing 150 pounds burns about 300 calories per hour of moderate gardening. Here are the calorie numbers for an hour of performing the following simple outdoor tasks: spreading fertilizer or grass seed 175, general yard clean-up or picking fruit 2010 calories … hefting compost, raking and digging holes for transplanting … incinerate about 100 calories in 15 minutes …”
Another task that can certainly turn gardening into a high intensity exercise is adding soil amendments such as wood chips and/or biochar, both of which help improve and build your soil.
The case for gardening as exercise was also demonstrated in a 2012 study,6,7 which found those who engage in community gardening projects have considerably lower body mass index than non-gardeners, suggesting an active lifestyle translates into improved weight management.
Male community gardeners were 62% less likely to be overweight or obese, while female gardeners were 46% less likely to be overweight than their non-gardening neighbors.
Do keep proper body mechanics in mind when gardening, though, just as you would during any other exercise, as the bending, twisting and reaching could cause injury if you’re careless. So, be sure to keep the following considerations in mind while working:
- Maintain proper spinal alignment while you work. This will help absorb shock, and will allow for proper weight distribution and optimal range of motion
- Avoid overreaching by keeping objects and work surfaces close to your body
- Whenever possible, work at waist height with elbows bent and arms comfortably at your sides
- When planting or weeding at ground level, make sure to bend your knees and squat or kneel, rather than stooping forward with your legs straight. Alternatively, use a gardening stool
Gardening can also be a powerful therapy for depression and anxiety. Many times, depression is rooted in a feeling of being disconnected from nature and other living things, and hence from yourself. As noted in a study8 evaluating depression severity in 18 adults during a 12-week horticultural program:
“Clinically depressed persons suffer from impaired mood and distortion of cognition … The mean BDI [Beck Depression Inventory] score declined 9.7 points from pretest to posttest and were clinically relevant for 72% of the cases. The mean AFI [Attentional Function Index] score increased 10.2 points from pretest to posttest.
The greatest change in BDI and AFI scores occurred in the initial weeks of the intervention. The reduction in BDI scores remained significant and clinically relevant at the 3-month follow-up).
The decline in depression severity during the intervention correlated strongly with the degree to which the participants found that it captured their attention. Therapeutic horticulture may decrease depression severity and improve perceived attentional capacity by engaging effortless attention and interrupting rumination.”
Other evidence for the mood-boosting effects of gardening can be found in a 2013 survey by Gardeners World magazine,9 in which 80% of gardeners reported being “pleased” and satisfied with their lives, compared to 67% of non-gardeners.
This feeling of well-being can have other more far-reaching implications for your physical health as well. According to research from Johns Hopkins,10 having a cheerful temperament can significantly reduce your odds of suffering a heart attack or sudden cardiac death11 for example.
Researchers in the Netherlands have found gardening to be a potent stress relieving activity.12 In their trial, two groups of people were questioned to complete a stressful task; one group was then instructed to garden for a half-hour while the other group was questioned to read indoors for the same length of time.
Afterward, the gardening group reported a greater improvement in mood. Tests also revealed they had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, compared to those who tried to relax by silent reading. Fascinatingly, other research suggests beneficial microorganisms in the soil may be, at least in part, responsible for such effects.13 As reported by CNN Health:14
“Christopher Lowry, Ph.D., … has been injecting mice with Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless bacteria commonly found in soil, and has found that they increase the release and metabolism of serotonin in parts of the brain that control cognitive function and mood — much like serotonin-boosting antidepressant drugs do.”
The study15 cited by CNN was published in 2007. A 2016 study16 by Lowry, which showed Mycobacterium vaccae promotes resilience to stress, was named one of the “top 10 advancements and breakthroughs” of 2016 by the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.17
In a third paper,18,19 published in 2018, Lowry’s team demonstrated Mycobacterium vaccae attenuates stress and anxiety by having an anti-inflammatory effect on the brain.
The neurological benefits don’t end there. Research also shows gardening can help improve cognitive function by increasing brain nerve growth factors. As noted in this recent study, which involved 41 South Korean seniors:20
“A 20-min low-to-moderate intensity gardening activity intervention, making a vegetable garden, was performed by the subjects … The gardening involved six activities including cleaning a garden plot, digging, fertilizing, raking, planting/transplanting, and watering.
To determine the effects of the gardening activities on brain nerve growth factors related to memory, blood samples were drawn twice from each subject before and after the gardening activity by professional nurses.
The levels of brain nerve growth factors, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and platelet derived growth factor (PDGF), were analyzed.
Levels of BDNF and PDGF were significantly increased after the gardening activity. This study revealed a potential benefit of gardening activities for cognitive function in senior individuals.”
Studies21 also suggest gardening can benefit those with dementia. One study,22 for example, concluded that “Gardening-based interventions can … be an effective vehicle for the promotion of social citizenship and expression of selfhood and agency in dementia.”
Last but certainly not least, keeping a garden can also improve your health by providing you with fresh, uncontaminated, nutrient-dense food. It will also help you reduce your grocery bill. Urban gardening is also an vital step toward building a more sustainable food system.
In fact, I’ve been encouraging everyone to plant a “Victory Garden” as a proactive step toward fixing our broken food system and improving your health. They’re named Victory Gardens because during World Wars I and II, 40% of the produce grown in the U.S. came from people’s backyards. I believe it’s possible to catalyze a similar movement today, but for a different purpose.
The new reality is that for most people it’s very hard to obtain high quality nutrient-dense foods unless you grow them yourself. Urban gardens are also key to saving energy, protecting water quality and topsoil, and promoting biodiversity and beautifying densely populated communities.
Just start small, and before you know it, large parts of your meals could come straight from your own edible garden. I recommend getting your feet wet by growing sprouts, as they are among the most nutritious foods you could possibly grow, require very small space and can be grown indoors, year-round.
You can use them in salad, either in addition to or in lieu of salad greens, or add them to vegetable juice or smoothies. Sunflower spouts will give you the most volume for your work and, in my opinion, have the best taste.
To learn more about gardening, check out my “Ultimate Guide to Gardening.” Also see “Top Gardening Tips to Build Better Health” for some basic gardening tips, guidance on finding out your zoning laws and other valuable resources for the urban gardener.
Remember, gardening may hold the key to improved mental health, stress relief and much-needed exercise in a world where most of us spend our days sitting in front of computers in artificially lit rooms.
I personally obtain the majority of my food from my own garden these days. It really is one of life’s fantastic pleasures to be able to walk out the door of your home and pick fresh high quality food for your meal.