'Gardening adds years to your life and life to your years.’
Although gardening isn’t the same as a spin class or 5km run, it’s still an excellent form of exercise, and in the words of Gregory Isaccs and Full Circle will help you in Working Up A Sweat. Gardening is not just about pretty flowers, or fresh veggies – an hour a day can burn off some calories, boost your immune system and sharpen your mental acuity.
But don’t just take my word for it, this is an extract from a study on the stress-relieving properties of gardening conducted by the University of Leiden in the Netherlands:
“[The] Stress-relieving effects of gardening were hypothesized and tested in a field experiment. Thirty allotment gardeners performed a stressful Stroop task and were then randomly assigned to 30 minutes of outdoor gardening or indoor reading on their own allotment plot. Salivary cortisol levels and self-reported mood were repeatedly measured. Gardening and reading each led to decreases in cortisol during the recovery period, but decreases were significantly stronger in the gardening group. Positive mood was fully restored after gardening, but further deteriorated during reading. These findings provide the first experimental evidence that gardening can promote relief from acute stress.”
In fact, gardening is such a stress-busting pastime, that the British Medical Journal claims it can significantly reduce the risk of stroke or heart disease. The same study suggested that for the over 60s, gardening can help prolong life by as much as 30%. The reason it is so good at reducing stress is that it is excellent in releasing endorphins – or ‘happy hormones’ – that give you a feeling of satisfaction and relaxation. The therapeutic properties of gardening have been shown to alleviate the symptoms of dementia and aggressive behaviour; increase the ability to concentrate and engage, and; reduce a person’s reliance on medication or self-harming behaviours. Being outside in the fresh air and sunlight is a sure-fire way to improve your mood and moreover, allows you to absorb a lot of Vitamin D – which helps to fortify your immune system.
Gardening offers both cardiovascular exercise as well as anaerobic (strength) training. It really depends what you do – a little seed potting might not burn a lot of fat, but a session of digging or turning the compost can burn around 330 calories an hour. Gardening for three or four hours is equivalent to a hard one-hour gym session. Thirty to 45 minutes gardening three times a week could be the solution to house-bound gym-bunnies in the current climate. The activities you will engage with will involve a lot of bending, stretching, lifting and pulling, offering great calisthenics training, and providing a fix for those missing their yoga sessions. The fact that movements in gardening are so varied, will help you avoid the kind of repetitive strain injuries that other forms of exercise can aggravate.
Your mental health will also benefit from gardening. As well as reducing stress, studies have shown that spending time gardening can combat depression and anxiety. Gardening also teaches us lots of useful lessons. A lot of our anxiety comes from trying to control things that are beyond our control. Nature teaches you lessons in acceptance. You cannot choose when it rains or is sunny. You can’t avoid disease, frost or in the gardening space, slugs and snails. We try to control all these things, but at some point, you have to let go. Your hostas will get chewed upon; you might lose your peas or cabbages to frost or drought. Gardening is just like life – you can create the best possible environment for something to flourish; but in the end you have to step back and let nature take its course.
If NASA uses horticulture to help with astronauts’ mental health, then those of us that just watch Star Trek on the television, can surely benefit as well. Learning about new technologies and techniques provides a healthy workout for your brain and studies have shown that over 60s who created a vegetable garden actually showed brain nerve growth by the end of the season, when compared to non-gardeners.
Just live in the moment – get outside and enjoy the changing seasons; you can feel a real connection with the world. Sitting in an office for eight to ten hours a day, watching the clock slowly tick around until it is your time to squeeze into an underground train or a bus divorces us from our planet. Gardening plugs us back in, and enjoying your seeds sprout, strengthen, grow, flower and harvesting the fruits puts you back into the rhythm of time.
Gardening also teaches us responsibility – you need to go out and do the jobs that need doing on time, or else your plants will die. If you are searching for self-worth or purpose – gardening can offer that. Plus, by providing a vital green space in the city you can help reduce greenhouse gasses, lessen your need to buy things, recycle kitchen waste and provide a habitat for bees, birds and mini-beasts.
And finally it can also improve your diet – if you or your children grow vegetables, you are going to want to eat them – even if it is broccoli or brussels sprouts. There are no travel miles involved in getting your food to your plate, and no one – not even the Organic Box Man – can offer you fresher vegetables. Children can definitely learn a lot from growing their own produce, and as a result are likely to be more appreciative of the efforts that go into preparing a meal and may be less likely to waste what’s put in front of them.
In the next posts I’ll talk about the beauty of compost, how it can help your and the world’s environment, save you money and grow beautiful things.