As many of us are aware, spending time in the garden can do wonders to improve our mood, aid relaxation and reduce stress, in addition to the aesthetic benefits of providing natural surroundings to enjoy but it has become more evidential in recent years that gardening has a direct impact on our physical and mental health. So, how can gardening have such a positive impact on our well-being?
Most would agree that time spent in the garden is hugely beneficial to physical health and whilst gardening won’t do much for cardiovascular fitness, movements like digging, weeding, sowing and similar repetitive actions require strength and flexibility helping to prevent health problems especially in the senior years, with regular gardening cutting the risk of heart attack or stroke prolonging life by as much as 30% among the 60 plus age group, irrespective of how much formal exercise was taken. As a pleasurable and goal-orientated outdoor activity, gardening has another advantage over other forms of exercise as those taking part are more likely to continue on a long-term basis and reap the rewards. Unsurprisingly, a healthier diet is often the by-product of gardening, with freshly-grown produce becoming easily accessible, it provides the perfect opportunity to include the fruit and vegetables carefully tended throughout the year in nutritious and well balanced meals.
In addition to the more obvious benefits, there are emotional, cognitive and mental health benefits to gardening which can be particularly helpful to those suffering with conditions leading to social isolation and lack of self-esteem and confidence, for example people with additional needs, those with mental health problems or recovering from a physical illness.
It has been shown that gardening can reduce stress, reducing cortisol levels with improved moods and greater feelings of relief from traumatic experiences such as dealing with illness or a death of a loved one. The production of cortisol by the body is directly linked to stress levels but it also influences more than just the mood; chronically elevated levels of the hormone have been linked to immune function, obesity and memory problems to name a few.
Recent studies support the belief that gardening can also play a vital role in alleviating conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder and even dementia. Researchers found daily gardening to represent the single biggest risk reduction in dementia, reducing incidence by 36%. Whilst investigations into the cause, symptoms and prevention of dementia continue, it is clear that by keeping the mind and body active, gardening can provide a protective measure against such a degenerative disease.
The restorative nature of gardening is also highlighted from investigations into a harmless soil borne bacteria called Mycobacterium vaccae which has been identified to boost the production of serotonin, a mood regulating brain chemical, indicating that contact with soil may actually elevate mood and decrease anxiety, common symptoms of depression and it is though that exposure to this bacteria may help to boost the immune system.
With the health benefits of gardening becoming more apparent, there are numerous voluntary organisations and charities across the UK which continue to introduce horticultural initiatives to vulnerable people who are likely to gain from the social interaction and sense of purpose in which working on a plant-based project can offer.
A key project, established in 2009, was introduced by NHS Lothian to involve the community in and outside the hospital growing food on up to 15 acres of derelict land belonging to the Royal Edinburgh Hospital. The key elements of the project is the promotion of physical and mental health, and building inclusive communities. The project gives scope for patient And NHS involvement alongside the community, with emphasis on creating opportunities for people who might otherwise face barriers to become involved with such activities. The site includes growing plots, field cultivation, a forest garden, a recovered orchard, woodland walks and hospitality areas, with the project offering therapeutic gardening work and training days to develop skills and knowledge for the people attending. Available for local community groups, patient groups and local health projects, if successful, there are genuine hopes that the ideas will be replicated with other health boards in Scotland.
However, you don’t have to go too far from home to find initiatives with a similar ethos and commitment to physical and mental well-being as those described above. Here in Dorset, Chestnut Nursery is based in the centre of Poole, under the charity name of SWOP (Sheltered Work Opportunities Project) providing adults with severe and enduring mental illness with voluntary work through the therapy of horticulture. At Chestnut, volunteers are keen to fill their time constructively but feel unable to cope with the stresses and pressures of open employment. It is the belief of SWOP, that sheltered work in a realistic but pressure-free environment is a great way to promote self-esteem and confidence, providing mutual support, helping to dispel boredom and loneliness, and restore dignity.
Sharon, a volunteer, says about Chestnut Nursery “What a lifesaver it has been, as the logo says ‘Caring for People, caring for plants’, although that is a bit of an understatement. I arrived depressed, lost and despairing yet their empathy, ethos and the nurturing environment to both the volunteers and the plants, allows you to reconnect to yourself and others. My coping and confidence abilities have been re-discovered, whilst gaining a sense of self-worth by helping to run the Nursery, returning the recognition of myself, my smile and the very precious will to enjoy life.”
Humans are social creatures so providing such opportunities to vulnerable members of the community can help to reduce social isolation, develop co-operation and improve communication skills. As well as charitable initiatives, we can all profit from an improved sense of community that gardening might bring, whether that might mean becoming involved in a community gardening scheme, heading to the allotment or merely talking with the neighbour over the garden fence and whilst the evidence is not definitive, studies would suggest that the combination of physical, social and mental benefits associated with gardening, it can only have a positive influence on a person’s balance and wellbeing.
A garden can provide a harmonious place to unwind, relax and restore ourselves, often providing us with a calm and peaceful environment in which we can learn to slow down and forget our daily worries and concerns. Senses are awakened and with the opportunity to escape form technology and the hectic lives that we lead, it provides us with the time to connect with nature, giving us a sense of satisfaction and contentment.
Published August 2015 – Country Gardener magazine