How Gardening Can Improve Your Health, Fitness, Mood and Nutrition

gardening

Story at-a-glance -

  • Health benefits associated with gardening include stress relief, improved mental health, better nutrition and exercise. Gardening actually counts as moderate-to-high-intensity exercise for both children and adults
  • Using a push mower instead of a riding mower can burn up about 300 calories. Other activities like raking, pruning, digging, planting and weeding can burn as many as 200 calories an hour
  • You’ll want to spend at least 30 minutes a day gardening in order for it to provide a beneficial workout. Using manual tools rather than power tools will ensure maximum energy expenditure

By Dr. Mercola

Modern living tends to sever your connection to the natural world, and many are now starting to recognize just how important a connection with the land is for health and happiness.

Health benefits associated with gardening run the gamut from stress relief to improved mental health, better nutrition and of course, exercise.1 In fact, some suggest a revival of home gardening could improve the health and well-being of entire nations. According to a recent BBC article:2

"Pilot schemes for general practitioners (GPs) to prescribe gardening are under way, while school gardening projects have been set up to give children a peaceful space to relax in.

There are also community garden schemes where patients at GP practices work together to grow food, while studies have shown that exposure to gardens can have a calming effect in dementia."

Academia, public health and horticulture professionals also recently met at a health and horticulture conference in the U.K., where the discussion revolved around the role of gardening in the treatment of chronic disease.

Gardening Boosts Mental and Emotional Well-Being

Needless to say, fresh air never hurt anyone, and research confirms that spending time in nature can have significant mental and emotional health benefits. Depression is sometimes rooted in a feeling of being disconnected, and reconnecting to nature can help you reconnect to your own self and "life" in general.

A survey3 done by Gardeners' World magazine in 2013 found that 80 percent of gardeners reported being "happy" and "satisfied" with their lives, compared to 67 percent of non-gardeners. 

Dutch research has also shown that gardening is one of the most potent stress relieving activities there are.4 Tests revealed gardeners had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol compared to people who tried to relax by quiet reading.

Researchers have also found that digging in the soil may affect your mental health via exposure to beneficial microorganisms in the soil. As previously reported by CNN Health:5

"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 ...

Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless bacteria commonly found in soil ... 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."

Gardening Is an Excellent Non-Exercise Nutritional Movement Activity 

The idea that gardening promotes improved health and fitness makes great sense when you consider that your body was designed to be engaged in more or less constant movement.

Chronic non-exercise movement is important for optimal biological functioning, and gardening is one way to stay active at times when you might otherwise be tempted to sit still.  

Research6,7 published in 2012 found that those who engage in community gardening projects have considerably lower body mass index (BMI) than non-gardeners, suggesting an active lifestyle indeed translates into improved weight management.

Male and female community gardeners were 62 percent and 46 percent less likely to be overweight or obese respectively, compared to their non-gardening neighbors.

Gardening Counts as Moderate-to-High-Intensity Exercise

Interestingly, fitness scientists have found that exercising outdoors makes you exercise harder, even though you perceive the activity as being easier compared to indoor exercise. This could potentially be part of the equation, as gardening may encourage you to work out harder than you might in the gym.

The video above is a humorous take on gardening exercise, but gardening actually counts as moderate-to-high-intensity exercise for both children and adults.8,9  

I personally use what I fondly call my Woodchip Workout and can assure it is quite the effort. I have moved over half a million pounds of woodchips over the last two years to create topsoil for my home landscape.

According to a Korean study,10 the following gardening tasks constitute moderate-intensity exercise, based on energy expenditure evaluations in children:

Weeding

Mulching

Sowing seeds

Harvesting

Planting

Mixing growing medium

Hoeing

Watering

Raking — which mimics using a rowing machine — and digging count as vigorous exercise; the latter being the most intense of all gardening activities. Another task that can turn up the intensity is adding soil amendments, such as wood chips.

This task needs to be done two to four times a year, and it may take several days to get it all done, depending on the size of your garden.

Mind Your Posture While Gardening

As with other exercises, form is important to avoid injury, so do keep proper body mechanics in mind when gardening. Key considerations include the following:

  • Maintain proper spinal alignment while working. This will help absorb shock, and allow for proper weight distribution and optimal range of motion
  • Avoid over-reaching by keeping objects and work surfaces close to your body
  • Whenever possible, work at waist height with elbows bent and arms comfortably at your sides
  • When planting or weeding at ground level, make sure to bend your knees and squat or kneel, rather than stooping forward with your legs straight. Alternatively, use a gardening stool

How Many Calories Can You Actually Burn While Gardening?

According to Nikki Phipps, author of the book, "The Bulb-o-licious Garden," using a push mower instead of a riding mower can burn up about 300 calories.11 Other activities like raking, pruning, digging, planting and weeding can burn as many as 200 calories an hour.

"Exercise in the garden gives all major muscle groups a good workout including your legs, arms, buttocks, stomach, neck and back. Whether it comes in the form of digging up soil, setting plants or carrying water, exercise is taking place," she writes.

Mother Jones has also published a list of the approximate amount of calories burned through various gardening activities.12 According to a report in The Telegraph,13 you'll want to spend at least 30 minutes a day gardening in order for it to provide a beneficial workout.

Using manual tools rather than power tools will ensure maximum energy expenditure. A previous Daily Mail report cites research showing three hours of gardening equates to an hour-long gym session.14 Five hours' worth of gardening per week burned up 722 calories.

"Over a six-month gardening season that works out at 18,772 calories a year — the equivalent of running nearly seven marathons. And the hobby could help burn a million calories over a lifetime," the Daily Mail writes. "Just doing half an hour weeding can burn up to 150 calories and tasks that handle heavy electrical equipment such as hedge trimming will give you a good workout burning 400 calories per hour."

Livestrong.com also notes that, depending on the gardening task and your current weight, you can burn anywhere from 240 to 448 calories per hour.15 The more you weigh and the more vigorous the task, the more calories you burn.

"A person weighing about 125 pounds burns approximately 240 calories an hour doing activities such as raking the lawn, sacking leaves or grass, and planting seedlings or shrubs ... Chores that burn approximately 300 calories per hour include digging or spading dirt and laying sod or crushed rock ... chopping wood burns 360."

Growing Your Own Food Can Improve Your Nutrition

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Last but certainly not least, growing your own fruits, vegetables, berries and herbs is an excellent way to improve your nutrition, which has clear health benefits. I recommend following organic guidelines, avoiding the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

Websites that offer helpful tips and guidelines for the organic gardener include BeyondPesticides.org, Rodale's Organic Life and the Pan North America Pesticide Action Network, Panna.org. Composting is an excellent way to minimize kitchen waste, using it instead to feed and nourish your garden.

The ability to grow your own high-quality, pesticide-free foods is one of the clear advantages of gardening in the first place, as minimizing toxic exposures is an important health aspect. Urban gardens help save energy, protect water quality and topsoil, and promote biodiversity while beautifying densely populated communities.

Urban gardening is also an important step toward building a more sustainable food system for everyone. Just start small, and before you know it, large portions of your meals could come straight from your own edible garden. 

If you're new to gardening and feel some trepidation, try getting your feet wet by growing sprouts. They're among the easiest foods to grow while also being among the most nutritious. When seeds are sprouted, their nutritional value is significantly raised. Their nutrients are also made more bioavailable. Some sprouted seeds can contain up to 30 times the nutrients of organic vegetables, ounce for ounce.

Sprouts are excellent for adding to salad, sandwiches, vegetable juices and smoothies. I recommend growing them in soil rather than in Ball jars. Sprouts can be harvested in about a week's time, and in a 10-by-10 inch tray you can harvest between 1 and 2 pounds of sunflower sprouts, which can be stored in the fridge for about a week. Sunflower spouts will give you the most volume for your work and, in my opinion, have the best taste.

Growing your own food can also help lower your grocery bill. The National Garden Association (NGA) estimates that while the average U.S. family spends $70 per year to plant a vegetable garden, they grow about $600 worth of produce — that's a $530 return on your investment.16

4 Helpful Gardening Apps

Many gardeners start out gardening because they want to sample some homegrown food, but end up sticking with gardening because of how it feeds their mind and soul. If you want to give it a try, the following apps can make quick and easy work out of planning your garden. 

  1. Eden Garden Designer ($1.99): this app (available for iPhones only) lets you take a picture of your yard, then experiment with the look of different plants and trees. You simply drag and drop plants from a choice of about 20 into different places, and the app even lets you see how your yard will appear in different seasons.
  2. Essential Garden Guide ($1.99): if you want to plant fruits and vegetables, sort through this database of more than 30 vegetables and 10 fruits. The app includes all the details you'll need to plant, tend to and harvest your crops, including how deep to plant seeds and how much light each crop needs.
  3. Foolproof Plants for Small Gardens (99 cents): this app has detailed information on more than 90 plants perfect for small spaces. You'll be able to pick the perfect plants for your climate zone and get step-by-step guides on planting and even much more (like how to lay down mulch).
  4. Perennial Match ($4.99): picking perennials to make your yard bloom with color throughout the year can be overwhelming, but this app makes it a cinch. You can sort plants by height, spacing, colors and more, and even find out what types of animals and insects different perennials attract. The app also lets you create combinations of perennials and see side-by-side photos of what they'll look like in your garden.
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