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Gardening's Surprising Health Benefits

Connecting to nature can mean less risk of heart disease plus a better sex life

By Shelley Sparks | May 30, 2014

There are plenty of reasons that gardening always tops the lists of favorite American pastimes: the beauty of the result, the joy of connecting to nature, being able to grow your own (and more delicious) food and herbs and, of course, relaxation.

But beyond that, this hobby offers direct health benefits to avid and casual gardeners alike.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels gardening “moderate cardiovascular exercise.” Former National Gardening Magazine editor Dan Hickey says that according to studies he has participated in, 45 minutes of gardening can burn as many calories as 30 minutes of heart-healthy aerobics.

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The National Institute of Health goes so far as to recommend 30 to 45 minutes of gardening three to five times a week as part of a good strategy to combat obesity. If you are pressed for time or can’t physically manage 30 minutes at a pop, you can still benefit by breaking up your exercise into smaller portions. For instance, you can do 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the late afternoon. This way you can also avoid working in the heat and humidity of midday. And the cherry on top: Research shows that gardeners have an increased zest for life, sleep better, have a lowered risk for osteoporosis and diabetes and, according to a new study, have better sex lives

Now that I have your attention: While researchers can measure cardiovascular activity, they stop short of providing definitive reasons for the other findings. These benefits could also be the result of the exercise one gets from working in the garden — or the reduction in stress levels—but looking at it more holistically, I believe that doing what you love, creating beauty and communing with nature can heal your body, mind and soul.

Gardening’s surprising benefits

The most striking example of gardening’s benefits I ever witnessed occurred during my previous career, as a social worker. I had a client who was listed as “disabled,” due to two strokes, and yet when I met her she appeared to be fully physically functional. She told me that her first stroke had paralyzed her and left her unable to walk. One day she was looking out her window and noticed the empty lot next to her home, an unsightly mess overgrown with weeds, parched soil and debris. That’s when it hit her: By rehabilitating that plot of land she might be able to rehabilitate herself.

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She crawled over to the lot every day on her hands and knees and slowly started pulling weeds and bagging debris. At first she needed help from her grandchildren, but she struggled valiantly for two years to clear the lot, and slowly but surely they both improved. Her doctors were in shock as they watched her return to full mobility.

A number of years later, I was ready for a career change, and I transfered the compassion I’d acquired as a social worker into my work in landscape architecture, with a specialization in a new field called horticultural therapy. Since becoming a landscape architect in 1981, I have coordinated and taught many classes in horticultural therapy and have heard dozens of firsthand accounts from war veterans about the physical and mental restorative effects that flower and vegetable gardening have.

I remember one particularly articulate Vietnam vet who spoke up in a class. I was surprised to hear this kind man say that he had spent 15 years as a drug addict prior to entering the Veterans Hospital for treatment. He said that he had given up hope that he could ever live a productive life until he started working in the garden. There he finally found peace and a sense of purpose and went on to teach other vets the benefits and techniques of gardening.

It’s not just me hearing these accounts. According to the American Horticultural Therapy Association, gardening can benefit people who are recovering from physical illness by retraining their muscles and improving coordination and strength. At the Oregon Burn Center in Portland, for instance, patients recover their balance and stamina by learning to navigate sloping paths through a sensory potpourri of plants in a shaded safe garden. In addition, simply spending time in nature reduces stress, lowers blood pressure and relieves muscle tension, according to Clare Cooper Marcus, professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley and one of the founders of environmental psychology.

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How to derive maximum health benefits

The best way to begin is to turn off the fancy machines and do the physical labor yourself. Work with a consistent rhythm and change positions every five to 10 minutes to avoid overusing or overburdening any one area of the body. If you start by reaching to prune a tree, for example, you might want to bend down to pull weeds next. Alternate using the right and left sides of your body to stay balanced. Unfortunately, I’ve found that even with this consciousness, many gardeners have problems with their backs, wrists and knees.

One universal principle to avoid injury if you work a lot with vegetables or flowers is to plant in raised beds, which will help prevent both back strain and knee problems by limiting how far you need to bend and reach. The height of a raised bed is a matter of individual choice: Some people prefer them to be 18 inches while others advocate 36 inches. Today there are even designs for wheelchair-friendly raised beds. Iowa State provides instructions to build tabletop and standard raised beds, both od which can be used for people in wheelchairs. If you don’t want to build raised beds, or can’t, another tactic is to garden while seated in a chair or stool or to work with one knee on the ground or use a kneeling pad. Companies, like Yard Butler and Active Forever, have websites that sell ergonomically designed tools and pads to assist gardeners.

Another way to keep injuries at bay is by learning the proper way to stand, sit and move. Remember to always bend from the knees, not the waist, because of the strain that places on your lower back. Be careful when pushing or pulling heavy objects: Let the larger arm and thigh muscles carry the load — not your back. Never use jerky, twisting or rough movements; move slowly and deliberately. And don’t be macho: Let gardening equipment and tools do the job for you. I’ve made the mistake of carrying plants and bags of potting soil all over the yard only to be laid up the next week with back spasms. That’s what wheelbarrows are for!

If you have wrist problems from the repetitive motions involved with gardening, use a wrist guard. These will keep your wrists steady while you dig. A good warm-up exercise is to make a loose fist then make circles with your wrist in both directions before and after your gardening session. Alternating garden tasks will also help keep your wrists from becoming overworked.

So with the potential for injury, is it all worth it? My answer, with a chorus of a million voices behind me, is a resounding yes. Athletes have to learn to adjust their activity to circumvent potential injuries or live with the discomforts that threaten their mobility. While gardening can’t compete with, say, cross-country skiing (600 calories burned in an hour), you can still burn 200 to 300 calories an hour depending on the type of gardening activities you do.

Beside the physical benefits, gardening can provide you with fresh, healthy food, the joy of seeing plants you nurtured flourish and a circus of wildlife. The longer you garden, the more you realize how many different ways you benefit beginning with your body, extending to your intellect and creative abilities, and reaching your soul.

Shelley Sparks, author of Secrets of the Land, Designing Harmonious Gardens with Feng Shui, is a licensed landscape architect and passionate gardener who seeks to create harmony and healing in her clients’ gardens (www.harmonygardens.net).