REPORT: Gardening may have a bigger impact than medication on preserving health

Patients with mental health problems, dementia, and cancer should spend more time gardening, a report says. British health charity, King’s Fund, urges the National Health Service (NHS) to have general practitioners prescribe gardening as an alternative treatment to standard prescription medicine. The report says that this activity can dramatically improve overall health. The cumulative effect is attributed to gardens “appeal[ing] to the senses — particularly touch and smell — which are important for people.” The report goes on to state that gardening, and being outside in general, proves to be extremely beneficial for those with mental health issues.

Former Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health at the Department of Health, Jane Ellison MP backs this plan, stating the gardening is “profoundly good for you…[it] is a great way of keeping people active, of keeping them outside and keeping their sense of well-being very high. There are things we can do around physical activity in particular that bring immediate payback…I am trying to put this right across the agenda of dementia and cancer.”

Numerous studies show the cognitive benefits of gardening. More than anything, the act of cultivating life seems to evoke feelings of calm and contentment among people. These effects have been researched as far back as the 1940s, with an article released in the American Medical Association stating, “the chief benefits of gardening as therapy lie in the dim, almost uncharted area of our emotions.” The authors of this 1948 article said that gardening prescriptions should be more prevalent, but noted that the increasing influence of big pharmacological companies would put this therapy plan to the back burner.

More than 60 years later, and nothing has changed. Those with mental illness are told to take synthetic medicine — even if several studies detail the various side-effects of doing so.

Sunshine, flowers, exercise

Gardening is an ideal alternative and integrative therapy. Studies show that gardening reduces stress levels. The act of planting reduces cortisol, the stress hormone. Other research cites an almost 20 percent reduction in violence among dementia patients who engaged in regular gardening. President of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) says, “I have long been aware of the therapeutic benefits of gardening — you don’t need pills so get out in the garden and enjoy it. It’s essential.”

“For me, there is a different evidential bar in something like social prescribing for people to get out doing gardening than there is for a vastly expensive new cancer drug,” adds Ellison.

The effects of gardening extend beyond cognitive function. The activity also strengthens the immune system by exposing people to a moderate-intensity exercise. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 2.5 hours of moderate exercise each week can dramatically reduce the risk for obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, colon cancer, and a plethora of other diseases. Gardening can help you achieve the required 2.5 hour goal each week. It is estimated that three hours of gardening is equivalent to an hour in the gym, in terms of number of calories burned. To note, studies also show that those who garden are more likely to exercise 40 to 50 minutes longer on average than those who prefer to walk or bike.

Gardening also exposes people to fresh air and natural sunlight. Data published in Biological Psychiatry concluded that fresh air can help prevent attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. Gardening also introduces children to helpful microorganisms that help them develop better immune systems. A report from the National Wildlife Federation concludes that children who spend most of their time indoors show a greater propensity for being obese and suffering from a vitamin D deficiency.

While there has yet to be a single, conclusive study on the overall effects of gardening on health, wellness experts suggest spending a few hours outside. If nothing else, gardening gives you the opportunity to spend less time watching TV and binge-eating on unhealthy food.

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