Doctors are prescribing gardening for health – with good reason. Studies have frequently shown major benefits to the body and mind from spending time tending to green spaces – whether it’s a rooftop terrace, herb-filled balcony, veg-strewn allotment or lawned paradise in the countryside.
The latest research, which surveyed more than 6,000 people, found a significant link between gardening frequently and improvements in wellbeing, perceived stress and physical activity.
Six in 10 people garden for pleasure and enjoyment, while nearly a third do it for the health benefits, according to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), which ran the study. One in five say wellbeing is the reason they garden and 15% say it makes them feel calm and relaxed.
RHS Wellbeing Fellow and lead author, Dr Lauriane Chalmin-Pui, said: “This is the first time the ‘dose response’ to gardening has been tested and the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the more frequently you garden, the greater the health benefits.”
There have been reports of more people gardening during lockdown – particularly women. As restrictions ease and the urge to get to the pub increases, here are six reasons not to put down that trowel just yet.
1. Gardening has the same impact on wellbeing as vigorous exercise.
Yes, that’s right. Dr Chalmin-Pui said their study showed “gardening every day has the same positive impact on wellbeing than undertaking regular, vigorous exercise like cycling or running”.
The key is to keep your gardening habit regular, though. People who gardened two or three times a week had a 4.1% higher wellbeing score and 2.4% lower stress levels compared to people who didn’t garden at all. However, gardening fewer than three times a month had less of a positive impact on wellbeing.
“Gardening every day has the same positive impact on wellbeing than undertaking regular, vigorous exercise like cycling or running."”
The study, conducted by the RHS in collaboration with the University of Sheffield and the University of Virginia, found more frequent gardening was linked with greater physical activity. Dr Chalmin-Pui added: “Gardening is like effortless exercise because it doesn’t feel as strenuous as going to the gym, for example, but we can expend similar amounts of energy.”
A previous study found that calories burnt from 30 minutes of gardening is comparable to playing a game of badminton, volleyball or practising yoga.
2. Gardening is great for your mind.
Mowing the lawn, pulling weeds and planting new blooms are all mindful tasks, which can distract you from everyday anxieties and stresses.
“When gardening, our brains are pleasantly distracted by nature around us,” explained Dr Chalmin-Pui. “This shifts our focus away from ourselves and our stresses, thereby restoring our minds and reducing negative feelings.”
The research found it wasn’t just able-bodied gardeners who benefited. Those with health problems stated gardening eased episodes of depression (13%), boosted energy levels (12%) and reduced stress (16%).
“Most people say they garden for pleasure and enjoyment so the likelihood of getting hooked to gardening is high and the good news is that from a mental health perspective, you can’t ‘over-dose’ on gardening,” added Dr Chalmin-Pui.
3. It boosts your body image.
Gardening – and allotment gardening in particular – promotes positive body image and makes people appreciate their bodies more, research carried out in north London by Anglia Ruskin University found.
The study, published in the journal Ecopsychology and led by Professor Viren Swami, involved 84 gardeners from 12 urban allotment sites in north London.
It found gardeners had significantly higher levels of body appreciation, body pride, and appreciation for their body’s functionality, compared to a group of 81 non-gardeners, recruited from the same area of London. It also found the longer participants spent gardening, the larger the improvements in body image.
Prof Swami said: “Positive body image is beneficial because it helps to foster psychological and physical resilience, which contributes to overall wellbeing.”
4. It can prevent disease.
Gardening could prove life-saving. A study in the BMJ found higher levels of physical activity – and this includes from 20 minutes of gardening (amongst other things) – are strongly associated with lower risk of five common chronic diseases: breast and bowel cancer, diabetes, heart disease and stroke.
5. Gardening can keep you mobile in later life.
Mobility can be an issue as you get older, leading to a loss of independence. But studies have found light-intensity physical activity – including gardening – may protect mobility in older women.
Research from Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health at UC San Diego found women who didn’t have a mobility disability at the start of the study, and who spent the most amount of time doing light-intensity activities, were 40% less likely to experience loss of mobility over a six-year period.
“Older adults who want to maintain their mobility should know that all movement, not just moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, counts,” said senior author Andrea LaCroix of Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health.
“We found that, among older women, light-intensity physical activity preserves mobility later in life.”
6. The more plants you see, the happier you are.
Co-author Dr Ross Cameron, from the University of Sheffield, said having more plants in the garden was linked with greater wellbeing, “suggesting even just viewing ‘green’ gardens may help”.
Previous research has shown having a view of greenery and plants can speed up recovery for hospital patients. And in 2020, a study by the RHS found adding a few plants to a bare front garden can make people feel happier, more relaxed and has the same impact as eight mindfulness sessions every week.
So, what are you waiting for?