The Psychological Benefits of Gardening

Jennifer McCormick, Registered Psychologist

It’s that time of year again. People are out in their yards digging in their flowerbeds, cutting their lawn, or weeding the vegetable gardens. Some people find these activities to be a chore, while others experience joy, contentedness, and a sense of accomplishment. Why do we get so much out of being outdoors, digging in dirt, seeing things grow? In his book, Biophilia, the biologist and naturalist, Edward O. Wilson, suggests that being drawn to the outdoors and wanting to interact with nature is an innate aspect of being human.

In a 2011 review of various studies on this topic, researchers concluded that “observing nature and participating in physical activity in green spaces play an important role in positively influencing human health and wellbeing”. The benefits appear to come from a variety of physical, social, and cognitive factors.

Stress Management

We all experience stress in our lives – it’s a normal part of being human. However, too much stress or feeling that we do not have the ability to manage the stress we experience can have a negative impact on our physical and emotional health. Gardening provides an opportunity to direct our attention away from commitments that might be draining our energy and causing stress. However, gardening is not just another distraction – it’s a dynamic activity that allows us to express ourselves, learn and improve skills, and experience pride in the result of a beautiful garden.

A study on the biological effects of gardening found that this type of activity can provide relief from acute stress. In the study, people who were experiencing stress either did 30 minutes of quiet reading or 30 minutes of gardening, cortisol (a hormone released during times of stress) levels were significantly lower for those who gardened than those who read. They further found a return of a positive mood for the gardeners whereas those who read had moods that did not improve in the same fashion.

In his review of health benefits resulting from contact with the natural world, Dr. Harold Frumkin suggested that there might be an evolutionary connection between emotional fulfillment and interacting with the outdoors: “There is evidence, then, that contact with the natural world—with animals, plants, landscapes, and wilderness may offer health benefits. Perhaps this reflects ancient learning habits, preferences, and tastes, which may be echoes of our origins as creatures of the wild. Satisfying these preferences—taking seriously our affiliation with the natural world—may be an effective way to enhance health.”

Physical Health Benefits

Research has shown that outdoor activities such as gardening decrease the amount of cortisol (the stress hormone) in blood, increase levels of Vitamin D and exposure to a natural soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, appears to have potential positive impacts on the human immune system and mood by reducing levels of inflammation.

Even the act of gardening involves strength, endurance, flexibility, and dexterity. Whether you are using the wheelbarrow, lifting a water can, or leaning over the gardening while weeding, the body is engaged. Throughout the gardening season, you might notice that your muscles are being worked, your cardiovascular endurance is increased, and you may even notice an increase in flexibility.

Social Activity and Community Connectedness

For hundreds of years, people have used gardens with groups of people with varying needs and in a variety of locations including hospitals, schools, prisons, and communities as a way to manage mental wellbeing. Research shows that gardening can help people heal, grow, and develop positive skills together.

In the British Journal of Occupational Therapy, J. Fieldhouse published an article based on research of people who intentionally garden as a group. He noted that there are two categories of benefits in these experiences; the first involves improvements in a person’s mood and concentration, while the second were related to having to work with one another to achieve a goal. This focus on building skills together with a mutual objective appeared to bring people closer together, provide a supportive environment, increase feelings of worth and involvement, and help overcome differences.

Another possible benefit of the social nature of group or community gardening can be learning and reinforcing healthy lifestyles with one another. When we regularly interact with people, we can both learn healthy habits as well as keep each other accountable to achieving health-related goals.

Whether you have a small potted plant in your window sill, participate in a personal or community garden, or even are able to spend time simply appreciating the outdoors this summer, you might find that the benefits you experience have you coming back for more!

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