This popular hobby may be the healthiest pastime

By John Murphy
Published August 18, 2020

Key Takeaways

Gardening is undoubtedly one of the oldest human pastimes. It’s also still one of the most popular, with nearly three-quarters (77%) of American households taking part, according to the National Gardening Survey.

Gardening may be one of the healthiest pastimes, too. Not only does gardening encourage eating the healthy food you grow, but it can also be good for your heart, your weight, your mind, your lifespan, and more.

Grow vegetables, not your waistline

Gardening may help you maintain a lower weight. According to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health by researchers at the University of Utah, gardeners had a significantly lower body mass index and lower odds of being overweight or obese as compared with their non-gardening neighbors.

Drawing on data from about 200 community gardeners in the Salt Lake City area, the researchers showed that women gardeners had an average BMI of 1.84 less than their neighbors—an 11-pound weight difference for a woman 5’ 5” tall. Men who gardened averaged a BMI of 2.36 lower than other men, which equates to 16 fewer pounds for a man 5’ 10” tall. People who gardened were also less likely to be overweight or obese—46% less likely for women and 62% less for men.

“The health benefits of community gardening may go beyond enhancing the gardeners’ intake of fruits and vegetables,” the researchers concluded.

Rake until you break (a sweat)

Raking, mowing, weeding, hoeing—gardening can be a real workout. That’s what researchers in South Korea determined when they evaluated the metabolic rates of 10 common gardening tasks (including digging, raking, weeding, mulching, hoeing, sowing, harvesting, watering, etc) among a small group of young adults. During the gardening tasks, participants wore calorimeters, heart rate monitors, and facemasks to measure metabolic parameters such as oxygen uptake, energy expenditure, and exercise intensity (or metabolic equivalents [METs]).

Overall, the researchers rated gardening tasks as moderate- to high-intensity physical activities. Interestingly, men had higher average MET values for the 10 gardening tasks than women did, although the differences were small. Specifically, average MET values for digging, raking, and hoeing were each about 1 MET higher for men than for women.

Live long and prosper

Gardening regularly can cut the risk of a heart attack or stroke by up to 27% and decrease mortality risk by 30%, according to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine by researchers in Sweden.

For this study, the researchers considered activities like gardening, blackberry picking, car maintenance, and DIY projects to be “non-exercise physical activities.” They followed more than 4,000 60-year-old adults for an average of 12.5 years and found that people who spent more time gardening and doing other non-exercise physical activities had smaller waists and lower levels of HDL cholesterol and triglycerides, regardless of whether they also exercised. In addition, men who did such activities also had lower glucose, insulin, and clotting factor levels. Notably, people who gardened or took part in other non-exercise activities frequently had a lower risk of a first CVD event and lower all-cause mortality.

“Our findings are particularly important for older adults, because individuals in this age group tend, compared to other age groups, to spend a relatively greater proportion of their active day performing [routine activities] as they often find it difficult to achieve recommended exercise intensity levels,” the authors concluded.

Dig this

Get in there and get your hands dirty—it could be healthy for you. Gardening gets you up close and personal with bacteria and other microorganisms found in soil, which may bolster your immune system, according to the “hygiene hypothesis.”

“[L]ack of exposure to infectious agents may be the culprit for the increase in immune-mediated and atopic disease prevalence, a concept most commonly referred to today as the ‘hygiene hypothesis,’” wrote the authors of a review article in ImmunoTargets and Therapy.

The other half of this hypothesis argues that exposure to infectious microbes can build up the immune system, helping you fight off infections and get sick less often. Notably, a raft of research shows that children who grow up on farms—who are exposed to unprocessed milk, manure, hay, and a barnyard full of other bacteria and allergens—have fewer allergic diseases and respiratory illnesses, including asthma, than other children do.

Grow your memory

Gardening also boosts brain function, according to researchers who studied the hobby’s effect in seniors.

For this study, researchers recruited 41 older adults and assigned them to a 20-minute, low-to-moderate impact gardening session (equivalent to about 3.5 METs). Tasks included cleaning a garden plot, digging, fertilizing, raking, transplanting plants, and watering. Before and after gardening, researchers took blood samples to measure levels of brain nerve growth factors related to memory. They found that brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) had increased significantly in seniors after gardening.

“This study revealed the potential of a short-term gardening activity for memory improvement in senior individuals and provided scientific evidence of the therapeutic mechanisms of gardening for memory,” the researchers concluded.

More benefits

These five benefits of gardening are just the tip of the fertilizer pile. Gardening is also linked with reduced symptoms of depression, lower stress, improved mood, and other benefits. And don’t forget that you reap what you sow. And in so sowing, you may also end up with pretty flowers, fresh vegetables, or aromatic herbs.

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