If you want to feel better physically and mentally, there may not be a better activity to pick up than gardening. Plant lovers instinctively know how good it is to be out in nature, and research has revealed some surprisingly serious health benefits of gardening — whether you have a green thumb or not.
Gardens have been around as long as humans have. They offer a creative outlet, a chance to connect with something bigger than ourselves, and exercise that is good for body and spirit.
It could be said that gardens bridge the gap between the wild, untamed world of nature and the organized civilization of humans. There’s something irresistible about bringing a vision to life with living, sometimes contrary plants or maintaining order with a well-cared for lawn or landscape.
If you’ve been thinking about trying your hand in the garden (or have been doing it for years), here are some top — and often surprising — health benefits that come with this treasured pastime.
Top 12 Health Benefits of Gardening
Boosts Vitamin D Levels + Strengthens Immune Health
Vitamin D is an incredibly important nutrient. It’s needed for hundreds of different functions within your body, including metabolism, bone health, brain function, and balanced hormones.
Although found in small amounts in certain foods, your body makes most of its own vitamin D by utilizing sunlight. In order to keep getting enough of this essential vitamin, your skin needs exposure to sunshine on a regular basis.
That’s what makes gardening a great “source” of vitamin D. You get exposed to sunlight while working on garden tasks, and your body is able to manufacture the vitamin D it needs.
This is especially important because an often overlooked aspect of vitamin D is its role in strengthening your immune system.
The “sunshine vitamin” is critically involved in the overall function of your immune system. It’s needed for your body to correctly identify and neutralize threats, helping to ward off infection.
In fact, research indicates that having low levels of vitamin D increases your chances of getting bacterial or viral infections, like the flu, as well as more serious diseases like multiple sclerosis, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
To get the most out of sunlight while gardening, most experts recommend a bare minimum of 15 minutes of sun exposure (without sunscreen) a day. Some put the number at 30-40 minutes a day to give your body more time to produce enough vitamin D.
Exposure to Gut-Boosting Probiotics
One of the more surprising health benefits of gardening is that you may be getting extra probiotics without realizing it.
We’re most familiar with probiotics that come in little capsules or are present in fermented foods. But there’s another large source of probiotics that often gets overlooked: the soil.
Soil-based organisms (also called soil-based probiotics) are beneficial bacteria naturally present in the soil. The concentration and variety of these bacteria varies based on things like location, soil health, etc.
For a long time, humans were regularly exposed to these bacteria through farming, gathering, and eating off the land. Today, a lot of our food is made in factories or scrubbed clean (and sometimes irradiated) so that no probiotics remain.
This isn’t a good thing because some researchers believe that probiotics from the soil have some special benefits for human health.
Soil bacteria get exposed to harsh conditions all the time: heat, cold, rain, snow, etc. This causes many of them to form spores that can survive stomach acid and have a better chance of colonizing the digestive tract instead of passing through.
Getting your hands in the dirt and picking up these probiotics is good for your health on many levels.
Helps You Live Longer with Health-Boosting Exercise
Sitting too much has been shown to have some detrimental health effects. It’s linked to an increased risk of many diseases and most likely prevents people from living longer.
Sedentary living is a big problem in developed countries like the U.S. and Canada where many jobs are “sitting down” jobs.
A big way to combat sedentary living is with exercise — and you don’t even have to go to the gym to get it.
One of the clearest benefits of gardening is that it gets you exercising. Often, you don’t even realize how much of a workout you’re getting- at least, until your sore muscles tell you about it later.
Just doing light yardwork (raking, mowing, weeding, etc.) is considered moderate exercise. Heavier garden chores, like shoveling or transporting mulch, are in the category of vigorous exercise and build muscle as well.
A large study from 2017 documented that just 30 minutes a day of “normal” exercise like gardening can cut your risk of death from any cause by 28%. That’s pretty impressive!
Maybe from now on, you’ll start thanking all the weeds in your garden for potentially adding years to your life.
Supports Heart Health and May Reduce Obesity Risk
Not only can gardening help you live longer, it’s also specifically good for heart health.
The same study that linked regular exercise to a lower risk of death from any cause also found benefits for your cardiovascular system. In fact, getting in 30 minutes of physical activity each day reduced the risk of heart disease by 20%.
Another similar study examined the effect of gardening and similar DIY activities on the health of seniors aged 60+. The results were very clear. Those who regularly gardened or did similar activities had a 30% less chance of having a heart attack or stroke.
Gardening has also shown benefits for preventing weight gain (something else that can put a strain on your heart).
The most obvious reason for this is the good exercise it provides. However, gardening also frequently provides a better, healthier source of food, which also has an impact.
All of this is good reason to get a garden going, if you don’t have one, and to keep gardening for as long as you can.
May Help You Sleep More Soundly
Exercise in general can help you sleep better because it tires you out physically.
However, a study from the University of Pennsylvania indicates that certain types of physical activity are more likely to get you 7 or more hours of sleep each night.
Gardening made it onto the list and was right up there with other activities like walking, running, and yoga.
Reduces Stress and Has a “Grounding” Effect
One of the benefits of gardening that most gardeners can agree on is its stress-relieving effects. (The exception being when deer and rabbits come through and eat your favorite plants!)
Nature has a calming effect on us in general, and there’s something good for the soul about working with plants.
Research indicates that gardening can be particular helpful right after a stressful event. Participants in a study who gardened for 30 minutes after a stressful task were able to fully recover to a positive mood afterwards.
The researchers in the study also measured cortisol (the stress hormone) levels repeatedly. Cortisol spiked during the stressful task but decreased significantly throughout the gardening time.
There are probably several reasons for the stress-relieving effects of gardening but part of it may be due to grounding.
Grounding, or earthing, is a therapeutic practice that involves connecting your skin with the earth. It’s been linked to benefits like reduced inflammation and pain, better immune function, sounder sleep, and a better mood.
Proponents of grounding most often recommend walking or standing barefoot outside, but putting your bare hands in the dirt can work just as well!
Protects Your Mind and Memory
Yet another benefit of exercise is that it protects the healthy function of your brain as you age. Many types of physical activity are linked to keeping memory and thinking sharp, potentially even reducing your risk of cognitive disorders.
However, gardening seems to have benefits for the mind that go beyond just the exercise it provides.
One study that followed a group of 60+ men and women for 16 years found that gardening was one of the best activities for lowering dementia risk. The only physical activity that scored higher was walking but only in the case of men.
Another astonishing study from South Korea examined the effects of 20 minutes of daily gardening on dementia patients. At the end of the study, there were increased amounts of brain nerve growth factors associated with memory in both the male and female patients.
Clearly, spending time in the garden is one way to keep your mental sharpness.
Mood-Booster + Good for Mental Health
Not only will you feel less stressed while gardening, it also has positive effects on other aspects of mental health.
Besides a general mood boost, regularly tending to a garden has been linked to improved symptoms of depression and lower anxiety.
One of the biggest studies done on this came from Norway. It was a 12-week study that evaluated the effects of “therapeutic horticulture” (gardening) on participants with clinical depression.
The results showed that 6 hours of gardening each week resulted in a significant decline in depression severity and an overall improvement of symptoms. Even better, the effects lasted for several months after the study ended.
Other research indicates that gardening can also help with anxiety, which is not surprising given its stress-reducing power.
Even if you don’t struggle with a specific mental health issue, working with plants is a great mood-booster.
May Provide Support for Addiction Recovery
Recovering from an addiction is a difficult task, but research shows there are potential benefits of gardening that can help.
In one study, connecting with nature through garden plants brought about positive feelings for those recovering from an alcohol addiction. The sensory experience of touching, smelling, and seeing the plants was considered helpful to the rehabilitation process.
Another study found that participants in an addiction recovery program who chose to take part in gardening completed the program at a higher rate. Even another creative activity (art) saw a lower completion rate than the garden group.
A Greater Feeling of Connection
An intangible benefit of gardening is the deeper sense of connection it brings.
One aspect of this is connection to other people. Gardening is a great family activity, good for adults and children alike. As an added bonus, exposure early on to the microbes present in dirt is linked to better immune function later in life.
Those who garden also get connected to the wider community of plant lovers. Even if you’ve never gardened before, it won’t be long before you find yourself discussing growing techniques, favorite plants, and how to keep slugs away with both neighbors and random strangers.
To add to this, gardening connects you to the land and the seasons like nothing else can.
It won’t be long before you gain a deeper appreciation for the amazing world of plants and feel connected directly to the earth.
You may also start to admire your local farmer much more than before as you experience for yourself how hard it is to grow beautiful and tasty plants in the face of insects, deer, rabbits, weather, etc.
Cleaner, Healthier Food
Despite our access to exotic food from around the world, there’s still nothing quite as satisfying as eating humble produce from our own backyard.
Along with giving a sense of pride, vegetable (and fruit) gardening has major benefits for reducing your exposure to pesticides.
By starting an organic garden at home, you have almost complete control over what does and doesn’t go into it. You’ll know for certain that no insecticides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers, etc. have been used on your produce.
Being able to pick food and bring it straight to your kitchen also keeps the most nutrients intact. You won’t have to wonder how long something has been sitting on a shelf or whether it was picked before it was fully ripe.
In fact, tasting fresh and flavorful food from right outside your door is one of the best incentives to keep gardening!
Good for the Environment
The negative impact of modern civilization on the environment is clear. Habitats are being destroyed, the soil is being depleted, and water is becoming more polluted.
While changes do need to happen on a large scale, local gardens are still an important piece of the puzzle.
Just having a garden with a variety of flowers, vegetables, and/or fruit gives pollinators something to feed on. Growing native plants is a great way to provide food for wildlife (especially birds) as well as beneficial insects. Cultivating some of your own food cuts down on the miles it has to travel to get to you.
Of course, how you garden matters a lot.
Using organic growing methods is essential to keeping chemicals out of the environment (and out of your body). Composting and using rain-catching systems cut down on waste and water usage. Choosing plants that deliberately support local insect and animal life will help dwindling populations (Monarch butterflies, for example).
The bottom line is that without caring for the environment, our health is going to suffer in many ways.
Gardening is one way you can actually take action for the good of the earth, plants, and people.