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by Janice Lloyd
Updated September 28, 2022
When was the last time you looked forward to weeding? If the answer is never, that might change: research shows that spending time working in your yard or garden helps the body and brain in some of the ways more strenuous activities do.
A European review on studies about the benefits gardening has for older adults found the activities increased feelings of accomplishment and a sense of well-being.
The authors added that gardening protected the brain by decreasing sadness and depression, both of which can contribute to a decline in cognitive skills.
The studies weren't designed to analyze the mechanisms that bring about the changes in the brain, but one theory is that repetitive motions like weeding and deadheading (removing old blooms) bring about positive feelings of control.
A study from the Netherlands found that 30 minutes of gardening decreased levels of cortisol, a hormone that increases stress levels, in the brain.
Research done at the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign finds that nature plays a big role in eliminating the harmful side effects of stress. While the studies weren't done on gardeners, director Frances Kuo drew comparisons between gardening and relating to nature.
Spending time working in a sunny garden, compared with being hunched over a computer, uses a passive kind of attention, said Kuo. "Nature," she said, "takes us out of that freaked-out state when our brains are fatigued" from dealing with all the demands of daily life. When our brains are fatigued, cognitive skills suffer. For example, she said, "Try doing taxes when you're already tired. It's painful."
She added that whether people spend time in nature, or even contemplate a photo of nature, they become clearheaded, and can reason and problem-solve again.
"I don't want to overstate it, but if you have the restorative effect of nature, you're dialing back years on your brain." Weeding, anyone?
• “An integrative model of the psychological benefits of gardening in older adults,” Geriatrie et Psychologie Neuropsychiatrie du Vieillissement, December 2014. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress,” Journal of Health Psychology, January 2011. In this study of 30 gardeners, participants completed a stressful computer task and were then randomly assigned to either garden outside or read a book indoors for 30 minutes. They had their cortisol levels tested and took questionnaires to assess their moods. The researchers found that gardening was more effective than reading at lowering cortisol levels and improving mood. Study limitations include its small sample size and the fact all the participants were gardeners and therefore may have been more sensitive to the benefits of the activity. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Nature-deficit disorder: evidence, dosage, and treatment," Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events, July 2013. This overview of decades of research linking nature and people’s general health attempts to measure what about the natural world—amount of time spent outdoors, or how much greenery is available to see or walk through, for example—is of most benefit. Part of the journal’s advancing healthy communities series, the article concludes with nine suggestions for ways to increase one’s daily “intake of vitamin G.” Read a summary of the study.