It's clear that gardening for mental health is more than a passing trend. Getting busy with plants is like an escape valve from the pressures and stress of everyday life, but there are other important benefits you won’t want to miss out on. Here are seven ways in which gardening and horticulture therapy can help if you're feeling lonely, low in energy and motivation or struggling with anxiety.
1. Stress relief
One of the main benefits of gardening for mental health is its ability to relieve stress. Researchers saw this relaxing effect when investigating bathing in green or forest bathing, the Japanese concept of walking in forested areas.
Gardening also provides a welcome break from our increasingly tech-dominated lives. A study found there were significant differences in mood when comparing participants’ response to two tasks: working on a computer and transplanting.
“In a recent survey, 80 per cent of British people believe gardening had a positive impact on their mental health... the benefits were even better than the gym.”
When participants were transplanting, they experienced lower stress levels than when they spent time in front of a computer. Researchers also noticed participants had lower blood pressure when transplanting, suggesting there’s a physical basis for the de-stressing effect of gardening.
2. Grounding and strengthen connections
Gardening fosters a sense of grounding, as it helps us to reconnect with our roots as human beings. People who get involved in gardening often experience a deeper sense of belonging and connection with nature. This is no small feat: think about how disconnected the majority of people are from something as basic as the origin of the food they eat.
By contrast, gardening grounds you in the value of growing your own food – even if you’re 'only' growing herbs. This sense of grounding also applies to the social sphere. Gardening can help strengthen your connection with others and offers an opportunity to meet people with the same interests. Visiting your nearest urban garden or allotment can connect you with like-minded folk.
3. Staying present
Staying in the present moment through mindfulness has a long list of benefits, such as reduced rumination and stress reduction. Gardening is a way of practising mindfulness as you need to concentrate on what you're doing. Furthermore, you can also take time to enjoy the beauty around you. Indeed, all tasks related to gardening (such as digging, pruning or weeding) force us to focus on the task in hand, and in doing so we’re more likely to stay in the present and put aside our worries, even if it’s only temporarily.
4. A sense of purpose
Another benefit of gardening for mental health is that you can achieve a sense of worth and purpose. This happens when you get directly involved in something that is hands-on and you can see the end result of your effort. There’s a sense of pride and validation in choosing the plants, herbs and flowers that make you happy, and the pride you feel with nurturing them. In fact, studies show that gardening causes an increase in feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin, as helping plants grow stimulates our identity as nurturers.
5. Reduce the risk of Alzheimer's
Gardening is related to better brain function and to improved concentration and memory. Some studies have found that it can even reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia. One long-term study from Australia followed nearly 3,000 older adults for over 15 years, tracking incidence of all types of dementia and assessing a variety of lifestyle factors. The researchers concluded that daily gardening was the single biggest risk reduction for dementia, reducing incidence by over a third – 36 per cent to be precise.
“People who get involved in gardening often experience the mental health benefit of a deeper sense of belonging and connection with nature.”
The factors that cause Alzheimer’s and its progression poorly understood. However, as gardening involves so many of our critical functions such as learning, strength, endurance, dexterity and problem solving, it could be this combination that contributes to warding off the illness in older adults.
6. Helps you to keep in shape
Indeed, gardening involves a lot of physical exercise and so is a form of physical therapy. Weeding, digging, carrying bags and pots around are all a good workout that can help you keep in shape. According to SAGA magazine, just half an hour of these fat-burning gardening activities can help shift a lot of calories:
Digging and shovelling: 250 calories
Mowing the lawn: 195 calories
Weeding: 105 calories
Raking: 100 calories
What’s more, regular workouts can help you sleep better, and restful sleep is another essential element in achieving good health.
7. Strengthens your immune system
You can strengthen your immune system by simply being exposed to natural light and Vitamin D while you’re gardening outdoors. In turn, this helps build resistance again chronic disease. Interestingly, it's also been suggested that the dirt you end up with under your fingernails may help to boost immunity! Mycobacterium vaccae, a so-called 'friendly' soil bacteria which is common in garden dirt has been shown to alleviate symptoms of allergies, asthma and psoriasis, all of which can stem from a weakened immune system.