Can Gardening Save Your Life?

A meta-analysis of studies on gardening shows that short-term or long-term gardening can reduce depression, anxiety, and stress, elevate mood, regulate Body Mass Index, increase the quality of life, provide a sense of community, and improve cognitive function.
gardening and health
Me in the garden maintaining my mental and physical health. Photo credit: Dianne Moody.

Every gardener knows how great they feel after being outdoors among nature and tending to their plants. Besides the obvious physical benefits of light lifting, bending, and stretching, working the soil seems to elevate mood and reduce anxiety. At least that’s been my experience and the experience of other gardeners I’ve spoken with. But that’s not scientific, just personal experience. Now science has produced evidence to validate that experience.

Three studies assessed respondents shortly before and after experimental short-term gardening activities… These studies showed that even short-time (several hours) exercise in gardens can provide an instantaneous beneficial influence on health (e.g. reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms).

Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis

A group of scientists in Japan and the U.K. conducted a meta-analysis of studies on the health benefits of gardening to see if there was any validity to the benefits gardeners report. Their paper, Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis, concluded that there is a wide range of benefits from gardening.

How do you define good health?

The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. Following the WHO definition, the study authors considered “health” as physical and psychological wellbeing. Not only did they analyze the studies for the absence of symptoms of chronic illness, but also the presence of positive emotions, the absence of negative emotions, and the ability to perform the normal actions of daily life without physical or psychological dysfunction. They also considered the increased physical activity that gardening provides (physical activity is a proven indicator of risk for obesity-related diseases) and the benefits of horticultural therapy, which engages patients in gardening activities to help improve their physical, psychological, and social health.

The study analyzed 22 papers from Iran, the U.S., the U.K., Norway, Japan, China, South Korea, and the Netherlands, including data on horticultural therapy, daily gardening, and experimental short-term gardening. Participants in the studies included males and females ranging in age from 8 to 84. Each study included quantitative data – that which can be measured – rather than self-reported or observed data.

teaching kids to garden 
The study found that children also benefit from gardening.

Study results demonstrate gardening’s positive impact on physical and mental health

  • Even short-time (several hours) exercise in gardens can provide an immediate beneficial influence on mental health through reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms. It is unknown how long these positive outcomes last after gardening.
  • 12 studies focused on horticultural therapy and investigated changes in people’s health over several weeks or months. One study showed that improvement of patients’ depression severity, life satisfaction, and cognitive function persisted at 3-months’ follow up after the therapy, indicating that gardening has a lasting influence on health.
  • 7 studies focused on daily gardening and found that participants had better health than non-gardeners, such as reductions in stress and BMI, as well as increases in general health and life satisfaction.
  • There was no significant difference in the characteristics or socio-economic status of gardeners and non-gardeners.
  • Repeated short-term exercise in gardens has a cumulative effect on health.

Given the robust evidence, the authors concluded that gardening has both immediate and long-term effects on health:

With an increasing demand for the reduction of health care costs worldwide, our findings have important policy implications. The results presented here suggest that gardening can improve physical, psychological, and social health, which can, from a long-term perspective, alleviate and prevent various health issues facing today’s society. We therefore suggest that government and health organizations should consider gardening as a beneficial health intervention and encourage people to participate in regular exercise in gardens.

Policy makers need to increase people’s opportunity and motivation to engage with gardening activities. The former requires enough spaces where people can enjoy gardening, and the latter needs the various advantages of gardening to be made apparent to a broad audience. Because gardens are accessible spaces for all kinds of people, including children, elderly people, and those with a disability, and relatively easily and quickly implemented in urban areas as a “land-sharing” strategy, we believe that such actions and policies would at the same time contribute greatly to redressing health inequalities.

Gardening is beneficial for health: A meta-analysis

This is remarkable scientific evidence of something we gardeners have known all along.

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