Gardening and Physical Health: What is the Connection?

by Aug 21, 2019

It is well known that outdoor activity is conducive to a healthy lifestyle. It is also well known that plant-based diets are also associated with a longer life expectancy and reduced rates of diseases such as cancer and heart problems. 

In fact, of the places around the world where residents are known for their longevity, a few commonalities between them are seen. Along with strong social support networks, daily exercise, and plant-based diets, these regions are united by another common factor: a large proportion of these populations are gardening well into their twilight years. 

So natural one may ask the question; can daily gardening increase one’s life expectancy to over 100 years?

Can Gardening Increase Life Expectancy?

Short answer: yes! Based on research, it seems that a daily gardening routine is associated with higher life-expectancy!

Long answer: There are a variety of studies that indicate that daily gardening contributes to longer life in virtue of giving one daily physical exercise, promoting mental well-being, and giving gardeners a stronger sense of community and connection with nature. Let’s look at a few of these factors individually.

Daily Exercise

It is well known that daily exercise contributes to a longer life expectancy. According to the CDC, moderate-intensity physical activity for at least 2.5 hours a week reduces the risk of obesity, heart problems, high blood pressure, and a  number of other physical ailments. 

Gardening is a great way to get daily moderate exercise and work in a routine. In fact, there are several studies that point specifically to the benefits gardening has on physical health. A recent study performed in the Netherlands found that participants who gardened outdoors after completing a stressful task showed markedly lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood afterward, compared to a control group that read indoors. The study also showed that those who read indoors reported further deterioration in their mood afterward. 

A related study performed in Australia found that both men and women over 60 who were regular gardeners had a 36% lower risk for developing dementia than non-gardening control groups. A related study found that daily gardening improved visual and tactile ability in elderly patients that suffer from cognitive disorders such as Alzheimers and Parkinson’s.

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Mental Clarity

Several studies also suggest that gardening is an effective way to increase mental clarity and amplify feelings of reward. It has long been known that manual activity like gardening gives a high level of personal satisfaction due to participants being able to see the tangible results of their efforts. 

In fact, several studies have shown that gardening is an effective mental health intervention. A 2013 meta-analysis published in the Mental Health Review Journal found that all 10 reviewed studies supported the claim that daily gardening reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety by fostering a sense of mental clarity and satisfaction. The use of ergonomic gardening tools can increase mental calmness and physical well being.

These findings have been so well-documented that doctors in Scotland are now prescribing daily walks and engaging with nature as a treatment for a host of mental and physical conditions. 

Better Diet

Communities that have a high rate of gardeners also tend to have healthier plant based diets. Research has shown that “Mediterranean diets”—diets high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fish, nuts, and healthy unsaturated oils—are linked to slower aging. 

What this means is that individuals who eat a diet rich in home-grown vegetables, as communities with high rates of gardening tend to have, have higher life-expectancies, even if the diet is not strictly “Mediterranean.” When you eat vegetables you have grown yourself, they taste more delicious and gardeners are more likely to eat vegetables that they themselves have grown. 

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Connection to Community and Nature

In psychology, it is a truism that human beings are social animals. Strong social networks are an integral part of healthy human development and activities that foster community connections increase overall well-being for the populations involved. 

For example, many gardeners sell their produce at local markets, which boosts the local economy and contributes to a sense of community connectedness. Such areas have higher levels of social connectedness because of the intimate nature of locally owned businesses. Customers know who they are buying from and shop-owners get to know individual people in their community. Several studies indicate that local retail centers such as farmers markets act as a sort of “social glue” which helps people connect with their community. 

Along with fostering community connections, gardening gives one a better sense of connection with nature itself. A study at Harvard University found that people who live near green lush areas have longer life-expectancies and a lower chance of developing respiratory illnesses and cancer. Communities with local gardens are also an important part of instilling a love and respect for nature in young children. 

What About Farming In General? 

If gardening is good for your health, then it stands to reason that farming also shares the same benefits. Some studies seem to imply that farming is one of the healthier professions out there and that farmers are 30% less likely to suffer from chronic illnesses than the rest of the population. 

However, these findings may not apply to all kinds of farming. Specifically, in the West, where large scale agricultural industries are more common, it is less likely that farmers are directly engaged in the farming process due to stratified organizational structure and the rising presence of automation. It seems that the benefits of farming are most pronounced in the context of small locally owned farms that work with sustainable techniques and products rather than large multinational agricultural firms.