By Dr. Mercola
Vegetable, herb, and seed sales are booming, courtesy of a new wave of consumers who are not only concerned about the quality of their food, but who also recognize the physical, mental, and even spiritual benefits of connecting with nature.
Modern living has driven a concrete wedge between us and the natural world, and many are starting to connect the dots, recognizing that a connection with the land is important for health, fitness, happiness, and overall wellbeing.
The Fitness Benefits of Gardening
As you’ll see, there are numerous reasons why gardening is good for you. One is related to the fact that your body needs perpetual motion to function optimally, and gardening is one way to stay active at times when you might otherwise be sitting still.
Research published in 20122, 3 also 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 than their non-gardening neighbors.
Fitness researchers have also found that when you exercise outdoors, you exercise harder but perceive it as being easier than when exercising indoors, which can have significant health benefits as it will encourage you to work out harder than you might otherwise.
Gardening Can Provide Moderate to High Intensity Exercise
Korean researchers have confirmed that gardening counts as moderate-to-high-intensity exercise for children,4 but it can certainly be intense exercise for adults as well—especially if you get into adding soil amendments, which I’ll discuss below. As noted by the Poughkeepsie Journal5
“... [I]n the Centers for Disease Control's 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, gardening is classified as a moderate-to-vigorous activity.
Lifting and carrying 40-pound bags of mulch, stretching into hard-to-reach places to do weeding or pushing a lawnmower around demonstrates that gardening can be a physically demanding workout.”
The featured article6 also notes that a person weighing 150 pounds can burn about 300 calories per hour by gardening at moderate intensity. Higher-intensity activities such as stirring compost, raking leaves, spreading soil amendments, or digging holes can burn up about 400 calories an hour.
According to the Korean HortTechnology study,7 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 and digging counted as vigorous exercise, the latter being the most intense of all gardening activities. Another task that can certainly turn gardening into a high intensity exercise is adding soil amendments such as wood chips, which can miraculously transform your soil by serving as food for earthworms.
You’ll need to do this about two to four times a year, and may spend a week or so getting it all done, depending on the size of your garden. The only investment required for this kind of exercise is a wheelbarrow and a pitchfork or shovel. Do keep proper body mechanics in mind when gardening—just as you would during any other exercise—as the bending, twisting, and reaching could cause injury if you’re careless. Key considerations include:
- Maintain proper spinal alignment while you work. 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
Back to Eden...
The documentary Back to Eden (see below) reveals how you can transform your garden by adding a thick layer of wood chips (mulch) around your trees and plants. (As noted earlier, this task ranks high in terms of intensity; it’s definitely a workout.) If you haven’t seen it yet, I would strongly encourage you to watch the entire video. It has transformed my understanding of how to garden. The film offers excellent advice for anyone interested in sustainable agriculture, regardless of scale.
It’s important to recognize that your health ultimately depends on the health of the soil—this is what allows your food, the vegetables and fruits, to grow nutrient-dense. As discussed in the film, nature is self-sustaining, and when left alone the ground will get covered with leaves and organic materials that then turn into lush compost, adding nutrients back to the soil. This top layer of organic material also shields the soil and helps retain moisture.
Imitating nature by covering your garden with wood chips will result in less watering, and improved yield. The most cost-effective solution is to contact your local tree service, where you can get large amounts of wood chips (tree branches that have gone through a wood chipper) for free, rather than purchasing mulch from a garden center. It is important to distribute all the chips within 1-2 days though, otherwise they tend to decompose and you will breathe in some nasty dust as you move them.
Once you commit to this program you will eliminate the need for any fertilizers and radically reduce the watering. The chips also serve as phenomenal food for earthworms, which will digest them and create incredible topsoil of worm castings for free. You can easily get them to create a few tons of this valuable soil amendment every year if you continue to feed them. It is one of the absolute best soil amendments you can possibly use and it is just absolutely amazing that they are free. I have put down three truckloads so far and plan on putting down another ten around my home and thirty around my office. If you plan larger scale projects like I am you might be interested in this four wheel wheelbarrow that will carry half a ton. The only other tool you will need is a pitchfork to put them in the wheelbarrow and help you spread them.
Adding Soil Amendments—A Great Workout That Delivers Remarkable Payouts in Your Garden
Besides wood chips, I strongly encourage you to consider adding biochar to your garden, to optimize the health of your soil. This soil amendment can truly transform your garden, in terms of dramatically boosting yields. One of the keys to a truly successful garden is to improve the microbiology of the soil. It is this diverse collection of bacteria, fungi, and parasites that actually transfer the nutrients from the soil into the plant. While synthetic fertilizers like Miracle Grow will supply some nutrients, these salts actually kill the soil microbes! As a result, your garden will not become “self-sustaining.”
To thrive and multiply, these soil microbes need a home to hang out in, or else they simply die shortly after application. Biochar serves this function perfectly. I’ve applied about eight tons of biochar on my property—and believe me, that was an intense workout!—and I’m now noticing major improvements.
Once you’ve applied the biochar, you need to activate it either by combining it with compost, rock dust powder, or my favorite, human urine. The urine is a phenomenal source of nitrogen potassium and phosphorus and will bind strongly to the carbon in the biochar. Wetting the biochar is also important in order to promote beneficial earthworms.8 You can certainly add biochar to existing plants, shrubs, and trees, but ideally it’s best if it’s in the soil prior to planting, so the plants have an ideal form of nutrition early on. If you have a small garden, you might only need a few hundred pounds. Larger landscapes will require more.
The Mental Health Benefits of Gardening
That said, let’s get back to the health benefits of gardening. There are many notable benefits besides exercise. For example, gardening can also help relieve depression. Many times depression is rooted in the feeling of being disconnected from nature, and hence disconnected from yourself... Researchers have also found that digging in the soil may affect your mental health via the microorganisms in the soil—again confirming the link between your personal health and the health of your soil! As reported by CNN Health:9
“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...
Christopher Lowry, Ph.D... has been injecting mice with Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless bacteria commonly found in soil, and has found that they 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.”
According to a survey by Gardeners’ World magazine,10 80 percent of gardeners reported being “happy” and satisfied with their lives, compared to 67 percent of non-gardeners. This feeling of wellbeing can have other more far-reaching implications for your physical health as well. According to recent research from Johns Hopkins,11 having a cheerful temperament can significantly reduce your odds of suffering a heart attack or sudden cardiac death,12 for example.
Monty Don,13 a TV presenter and garden writer, attributes the wellbeing of gardeners to the “recharging” you get from sticking your hands in the soil and spending time outdoors in nature. This seems more than reasonable when you consider the health benefits associated with grounding, also known as Earthing. As detailed in the documentary film Grounded, the surface of the earth holds subtle health-boosting energy, and all you have to do is touch it.
Walking barefoot on the earth transfers free electrons from the earth’s surface into your body that spread throughout your tissues. Grounding has been shown to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, improve sleep, and enhance your well-being. Many a gardener will attest to the sense of wellbeing obtained from sticking your hands in the dirt as well, and this is separate from the pleasure of accomplishment that comes from eating your own home-grown food.
Gardening Also Offers Stress Relief and Boosts Brain Health
Researchers in the Netherlands have found that gardening is one of the most potent stress relieving activities there are.14 In their trial, two groups of people were asked to complete a stressful task; one group was then instructed to garden for half an hour while the other group was asked to read indoors for the same length of time. Afterward, the gardening group reported a greater improvement in mood. Tests also revealed they had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, compared to those who tried to relax by quiet reading. CNN’s report15 also refers to research showing that gardening may even help reduce your risk of dementia:
“Two separate studies that followed people in their 60s and 70s for up to 16 years found, respectively, that those who gardened regularly had a 36 percent and 47 percent lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners, even when a range of other health factors were taken into account. These findings are hardly definitive, but they suggest that the combination of physical and mental activity involved in gardening may have a positive influence on the mind.”
Gardening Is an Excellent Way to Improve Your Nutrition
Last but certainly not least, keeping a garden can also improve your health by providing you with fresher, uncontaminated, nutrient-dense food that you can’t buy in your local grocery store. It will also help you reduce your grocery bill. Urban gardening is an important step toward building a more sustainable food system. In fact, I’ve been encouraging everyone to plant a “Victory Garden” as a proactive step toward fixing our broken food system and to improve your health. They’re named Victory Gardens because during World Wars I and II, 40 percent of the produce grown in the US came from people’s backyards. I believe it’s possible to catalyze a similar movement today, but for a different purpose. The new reality is that for most people it’s very difficult to obtain high quality nutrient-dense foods unless you grow them yourself.
Just start small, and before you know it, large portions of your meals could come straight from your own edible garden. I recommend getting your feet wet by growing sprouts, as they are among the most nutritious foods you could possibly grow. Seeds, when sprouted, can contain up to 30 times the nutrients of organic vegetables! Sprouts also allow your body to extract more of the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and essential fats from the other foods you eat. Add to that the boon of requiring very little space, and the ability to grow them indoors, year-round.
You can use them in salad, either in addition to or in lieu of salad greens, or add them to vegetable juice or smoothies. I started out growing sprouts in Ball jars about 15 years ago, but I’ve found that growing them in potting soil is a far better option. You can harvest them in about a week, and in a 10x10 tray, you can harvest between one and two pounds of sunflower sprouts. That will last you about three days. You can store them 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.
Gardening May Be a Key Facet of a Healthy Lifestyle
Food grown in your own garden is overall fresher, more nutritious, and tastes better than store bought food—and you can’t beat the price! Urban gardens are also key to saving energy, protecting water quality and topsoil, and promoting biodiversity and beautifying densely populated communities. Gardening may also hold the key to improved mental health, stress relief, and much-needed exercise in a world where most of us spend our days sitting in front of computers in artificially lit rooms.
I personally obtain the majority of my food from my own landscape now, which includes multiple varieties of kale, red peppers, hot peppers, onions, garlic, parsley, rosemary, cilantro, oregano, one olive and three avocado trees, and plenty of fruit, including 130 strawberry plants, mulberries, blueberries, service berries, cherries, lime, oranges, tangerines and mangos. It really is one of life’s great pleasures to be able to walk out the door of your home and pick fresh high-quality food.