The idea of gardening contributing to our health seems on the surface to be a no-brainer but science is discovering different ways how gardening and nature in general can help give us all a better quality of life overall.
When I was a kid I basically only liked 3 foods and vegetables was not one of them. I'm not sure how I survived on a diet of saltine crackers and American cheese but thankfully I'm still here. I was very sick a lot though and it all makes sense now when I think what I ate or more like what I didn't eat growing up.
It wasn't my parent's fault either. They tried their very best to get me to eat veggies and fruit but the canned stuff we were usually served didn't work for me. My taste buds were enlightened the first time I ate a newly shucked pea from its pod from one of our summer time gardens. We didn't garden every year but the few times we did I realized that vegetables could actually be tasty.
Once married and with kiddos; I decided they needed to taste real food from its source and that's when I really plunged into gardening. I was hooked on growing my own food and that meant I needed to eat this stuff too. Which I did, although some vegetables took me a long time to like; I persevered on until I grew to love them too.
So how does gardening make you healthy?
1. Stress Relief.
Sounds funny when I think of it because weeds can make me feel stressed, but actually a recent study done in the Netherlands showed how it can relieve lots of stress. Two groups of people after having completed a stressful task were then instructed to either read a book or work in the garden for 30 minutes. The garden group reported better moods and had lower levels of cortisol than the reading group.1 Pretty amazing, huh? It turns out that garden activity is a type of "involuntary attention" where we don't have to be intensely focused on a specific task and therefore can relax. After all, pulling a weed or hoeing isn't rocket science.
2. Better Mental Health.
"In a study conducted in Norway, people who had been diagnosed with depression, persistent low mood, or "bipolar II disorder" spent six hours a week growing flowers and vegetables.
After three months, half of the participants had experienced a measurable improvement in their depression symptoms. What's more, their mood continued to be better three months after the gardening program ended. The researchers suggest that the novelty of gardening may have been enough to jolt some of the participants out of their doldrums, but some experts have a much more radical explanation for how gardening might ease depression." 2
I know that when I feel anxious or stressed, going out to look at my plants, flowers, what-have-you makes a big difference in how I feel when I come back in from being outside. But not just the warm sun, gentle breezes and the beautiful colors of nature can affect us, some researchers believe that the soil itself can be healing!
"Christopher Lowry, Ph.D., an assistant professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, 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."3
This isn't to say that you should throw away your prescription drugs but to think if you're feeling a bit down or depressed that planting in the soil can help...why not?!
3. Exercise and Nutrition.
This is a given. Although the exercise we do in the garden is not cardiovascular, we are moving and that is always beneficial to the body. The repetitive tasks help to tone muscle and are good low impact exercises. It's not surprising to hear that many elderly people do well health wise when they maintain a garden of some kind.
Nutrition...well, when you plant the food you pretty much are committed to try to eat it! And most gardeners eat more vegetables than non-gardeners. This has to do with access to fresher food and making better food choices.
"Studies of after-school gardening programs suggest that kids who garden are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables. And they're a lot more adventurous about giving new foods a try, says Anne Palmer, who studies food environments as the program director of Eating for the Future, a program based at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Center for a Livable Future, in Baltimore."4
No room for a garden? Not a gardener? Studies have shown that even looking at some form of nature can bring health benefits as well. Health benefits have been found even when looking at a portrait or photo. 5
"A landmark study by Roger S. Ulrich, published in the April 27, 1984, issue of Science magazine, found strong evidence that nature helps heal. Ulrich, a pioneer in the field of therapeutic environments at Texas A&M University, found that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery who looked out at a view of trees had significantly shorter hospital stays, fewer complaints, and took less pain medication, than those who looked out at a brick wall."6
Pretty amazing stuff, right? But then again...as gardeners we're not too surprised. Being connected with nature and being amazed year after year whenever we see newly sprouted seedlings emerge gives us immense joy. It brings back that childlike amazement of new birth which has to be great for our hearts and minds. It also gives us a tremendous sense of accomplishment...always great for our health.
Hopefully this will inspire you to want to buy a patio tomato, a potted flower or a windowbox of lettuce...of all the health benefits, you'll be eating better for sure!
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