In this post, we look at the health benefits of gardening and 5 reasons why nature-based activities can play a key role in solving the current crises in social care and public health.
Sedentary lifestyles and the prevalence of so-called ‘lifestyle diseases’ like heart disease, stroke, depression and obesity, have become a huge public health concern.
Most of us know about this. But the statistics still make shocking reading.
Did you know that when asked a fifth of people in Scotland said they did not manage a twenty-minute walk once in the last year? Not even once?
How about the estimate that around 85,000 people die early each year in England and Wales due to illnesses related to sedentary living? Not to mention the declining ‘morbidity’ or quality of life people can expect as they age. Or the £11bn that ‘lifestyle illnesses’ cost the NHS each year.
What’s even more startling is that some of the simplest, most potent and cost-effective solutions to this ‘social health crisis’ could be right outside our doors.
In the UK, National Parks cover 12% of our land area. The city of London, believe it or not, is 47% green space. It is estimated that 22.7million households (that’s 87%) have access to a domestic garden.
Why is this important? Because the health benefits of gardening and other nature based activities are now so well documented they simply cannot be ignored.
Keep reading for 5 reasons why gardening can play a key role in solving the current crisis in health and social care.
1. Physical benefits
Gardening offers a terrific range of opportunities for physical movement and exercise.
Researchers at Coventry University have found that high-intensity activities like raking and digging are the exercise equivalent to taking a brisk walk.
Other researchers have found that gardening is a fantastic way to burn calories. One hour of weeding burns up to 300 calories. An hour behind a hand-push lawn mower can burn as many as 500 calories. This is about the same as an hour playing tennis.
Even the more ‘gentle’ activities like seed sowing and dead-heading involve complex reaching and pinching movements, balance, dexterity, recognition and hand-eye coordination.
The best thing about gardening is that unlike an hour on treadmill, it doesn’t feel like exercise.
And plants help to purify the air and reduce erosion and runoff. There is good reason to believe that gardens have a positive impact on the environment, especially in cities.
When we take care of nature, it takes care of us.
2. Emotional/Psychological benefits
Gardening has many proven emotional and psychological benefits.
The evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson wrote that humans have an almost genetic predisposition to seek contact with nature. He called this phenomenon ‘biophilia’. Since we evolved in such close proximity to nature, it stands to reason that as a species we are much better adapted to natural environments than urban spaces.
The health benefits of accessing green spaces are well understood and were acknowledged in a question by Helen Whatley MP in Parliament this week.
Gardening has been associated with positive emotions, self-esteem, wellbeing and hope.
Randomised control trial (RCT) research has shown that gardening therapy can elicit ‘positive affect‘ (things like joy, interest, and alertness) amongst people with dementia.
Gardening and ecotherapy (the process of supporting people to be active outdoors) have also been shown to positively impact mood.
Whether you believe that biophilia is a persuasive evolutionary theory or just another nice idea, it is hard to argue with the research suggests we feel better and do better around plants and green environments.
3. Cognitive benefits
As well as benefiting us physically, emotionally and psychologically, a ‘dose of nature’ has been shown to improve cognition.
An MRI study analysing the stress-processing brain regions in older Berlin city dwellers found that nature-proximity could be an important factor in brain health.
And research from the University of Essex has demonstrated that even a short exposure to nature can improve a person’s ability to perform and focus attention on cognitive tasks like mental arithmetic and spelling words backwards.
This might be because scenes of nature can calm and restore our mental faculties.
But there is more.
Many of us will have heard the old adage ‘use it or lose it’ in research and messaging around Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Horticulture combines numeracy, literacy, problem-solving, memory, life-skills, communication, and involves a healthy amount of sensory stimulation. So it can be a valuable resource for helping people to live well and age better.
4. Social benefits
Whether it is sharing tips with a passer-by who wants to know ‘what is that?’ and ‘how do you grow it?’ or allotment gardens that enable people to feel part of a community, horticulture provides rich opportunities for people to connect.
Gardeners are often avid enthusiasts and are more than happy to share tips and ideas. For these reasons, gardeners often develop reciprocal relationships and support networks.
Gardening competitions have also been observed to engender a positive community spirit and get people out and talking over the garden gate.
Research by Thrive has suggested that structured horticultural programmes could be particularly effective at promoting social inclusion amongst vulnerable and isolated groups.
5. Gardening can be both treatment and prevention
The health benefits of gardening can be harnessed by people in everyday life, as part of health promotion activities and in Green Care treatment interventions.
For those of us who have the means, it is not difficult to incorporate gardening in our lives.
Whether we garden on a windowsill, a patio or in a much larger space, we can enjoy the health benefits of gardening at home or at work. It will make us happier and healthier and can easily become a good habit that we keep for life.
For people who do not have the means, there are numerous health promotion initiatives like community gardens and city farms. These supportive spaces can encourage individuals, communities and groups to get more active and have more social contact.
And finally, for people who are unwell, gardening can be used as a treatment activity. A recent paper reviewed 12 studies of the impact of ‘horticultural therapy’ on various groups. Overall, the results suggest that participating in structured horticultural therapy activities has a significant positive impact on health.
In some places gardening can even be prescribed by a doctor or GP.
Because gardening can be used as both a treatment and a preventative measure, and because of its proven physical, emotional, psychological, cognitive and social benefits, not to mention the positive impact of plants on the environment, gardening could not only help solve the current health and social care crises – it could help save the world.
This post was inspired by the ideas explored in The Principles of Social and Therapeutic Horticulture, a free online course from the charity Thrive that you can access today.