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The health benefits of gardening

Patsy Westcott / 01 March 2019

Find out why gardening is good for your mental health and benefits your fitness levels, and can even help with chronic conditions.

Older woman gardening to improve health
Energetic gardening provides the same positive health benefits as jogging or swimming

Tending a garden could be just what the doctor ordered according to new research suggesting that gardening can have a deep and lasting impact on a raft of health problems. These include heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, cancer, backache, depression, dementia and sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass and density). This chimes with another study showing that allotment gardeners have better self-esteem and experience less depression and fatigue.

Meanwhile, according to a third study, spending time in the garden can even add years to life. It showed that keen gardeners aged 55-plus who spent half an hour or more a day in the garden had a longer life expectancy and a greater length of time free of heart problems in later life than non-gardeners.

Research carried out at Kansas State University found that regular energetic gardening provides the same positive health benefits as exercise programmes like jogging or swimming. Gardening chores including pushing a lawn mower, digging holes and pulling weeds use muscle groups all over the body and provide a good general work out.

Older adults were also less likely to give up compared with conventional exercise routines because they found gardening more interesting with different tasks to perform as the seasons changed.

Nature-based activities, including gardening, are now available on prescription on the NHS. The programme encompasses a range of options designed to encourage our engagement with the natural world, something we have lost in our increasingly urbanised lives. Read on for some ways in which gardening can help…

Gardening for mental health

Gardening is one of the best activities for physical and mental wellbeing. Digging can help to reduce inflammation, while sowing seeds, growing and cooking the results can help with mental-health recovery. Even just looking at trees can help to lower stress,’ says former nurse, Dr Michelle Howarth, from the University of Salford, who has been studying the potential benefits of social and therapeutic horticulture – the use of gardens and gardening to address health issues.

It’s a thought shared by Paul Scott of the gardening therapy charity Thrive. ‘Gardening is flexible and adaptable,’ says Scott, centre manager at Thrive’s Reading headquarters. ‘Clients develop new skills, improve physical health and gain a sense of purpose and achievement as well as interacting with others.’

And he adds, ‘Even passively gazing at a garden can have therapeutic benefits,’ an observation borne out by an oft-cited research study showing that surgical patients who looked out at a garden rather than a brick wall healed faster, needed fewer painkillers and experienced fewer post-operative complications.

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Garden exercise can help you stay fit

Aerobic activities such as digging, raking or mowing the lawn get the heart pumping and can burn as many calories or more as going to the gym. Such activities also score high on the muscle-strengthening front, two sessions a week of which are recommended for health.

But it’s not simply that gardening gets us moving, garden tasks – think deadheading, weeding, pruning and even just pottering – also stop us being sedentary, something now thought to be as harmful as smoking in terms of its effects on blood glucose, insulin, blood pressure and muscle mass and strength.

Find out how many calories you burn when gardening.

Gardening to improve recovery

Gardening can also aid recovery – for example, after cardiovascular problems, such as a heart attack or stroke, as Nick Barley, 58, discovered. Nick had a stroke in April 2017, and after seven months in hospital was left weak on the right of his body as well as low in confidence and self-esteem. He learnt about the therapeutic garden, run by Thrive, in Battersea Park through his local Stroke Association, and joined its specialised stroke programme.

This 12-week plan provides the chance to develop gardening skills and helps to support rehabilitation through activities designed to strengthen limbs, improve communication, dexterity, fine motor skills, memory and information retention. Nick says: ‘After the stroke I disappeared into myself. I didn’t like talking to people and couldn’t be bothered to do anything. Everyone at the garden was so friendly. It helped me come out of myself and quite literally got me back on my feet.’

Today, although he still has some weakness on his right side, Nick volunteers at the garden twice a week. ‘There’s always something going on and I’ve made friends. I can’t praise it highly enough,’ he adds.

Gardening to ease chronic conditions

Gardening can be especially helpful for people with chronic conditions – such as arthritis, asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and high blood pressure – that can be managed with medications but not cured, according to a King’s Fund report. For example, Thrive’s Breathing Green Air programme, in partnership with the British Lung Foundation, has been shown to reduce breathlessness and repeat visits to the doctor in people with COPD.

Read our tips for gardening with arthritis.

Gardening to aid dementia

The report cites emerging evidence that gardening can be important in helping to prevent and manage symptoms of dementia and cognitive decline. Horticultural trainer and therapist Pauline Jordan of Hortic Therapy has seen this at first-hand. ‘Gardening can be a powerful way to unlock memories and get people with dementia talking,’ she comments. She currently sees clients in their homes as well as in care homes in Southampton.

‘A typical session might involve potting up bulbs or sowing seeds. I use green table- top trays to bring the outside in. The smell of the soil helps trigger memories and I also use lots of pictures to encourage people to open up. ’

Therapy gardens in hospitals

Therapeutic gardens are also finding their way into the grounds of hospitals. In the past, Dr Howarth observes, ‘Many hospital wards used to have gardens’. But these were often dismissed as irrelevant and fell into disuse in the late 20th century. This is now beginning to change. Take the award-winning Horatio’s Garden, which since 2012 has provided a place of sanctuary for patients from the Spinal Treatment Centre at Salisbury District Hospital. It’s one of an increasing number of hospital ‘healing gardens’ designed to bring a sense of peace and stimulate the senses, with grasses that rustle in the wind, aromatic herbs, and shrubs and trees for texture and structure.

Since February 2018, patients in the 14-bed Denbigh Ward of Fulbourn Hospital, Cambridgeshire, have had access to three gardens – a grow your own fruit and vegetable garden next to the kitchen, a calming sensory garden and a country garden with wide paths made of non-slip material, with enough space for wheelchairs and Zimmer frames so patients can walk side by side with relatives or friends.

Says ward manager Sue Richardson, ‘Patients have the space to walk without purpose, something people with dementia need to do. We have a gardening club supervised by ward staff, an occupational therapist and occupational therapy and healthcare assistants. Patients love it.’

Case study: how gardening helped me cope

Former tree surgeon Lynn Jeffery, 56, was referred by her GP to the Eden Project’s therapeutic Space to Grow initiative after the death of her parents

‘After 11 years as a full-time carer, I was exhausted and bereft. I couldn’t stop crying. Some days were so bad I couldn’t go outside – it was as if there was barbed wire over the front door. The garden has been a lifesaver. There’s a lovely friendly atmosphere and we’ve all become friends. Wherever we’ve come from, we just need support, which we are able to give to each other or, if we have problems we feel we can’t share with others, we can talk in confidence to Matty, our project leader. The garden really lives up to its name: it is a beautiful garden that enables us to grow at the same time as having a lot of fun and laughs.’

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