The Secret To A Healthy Heart? It’s Not Running, Say Scientists
If you enjoy gardening, then you know the physical effort it takes to raise fruits and vegetables. Digging, planting, weeding, and watering are all part of the process, but it’s worth it when the produce comes out of the ground and onto your plate. It’s gratifying to know that you’re eating healthy, but you may not know that gardening helps your heart stay healthy.
A new study suggests that gardening can help older adults reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and even lower their odds of developing diabetes. The research, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in May, also indicates that gardening can reduce the risk of depression and anxiety.
The study reviewed data from 146,047 U.S. adults 65 years old and over who were in the 2019 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. The adults were grouped into gardeners, exercisers (those who were involved in physical activities other than gardening), and non-exercisers.
After examining the data, researchers found that:
- Gardeners reported spending more time staying physically active compared to exercisers.
- Gardeners, compared with non-exercisers, reported significantly lower odds of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, heart attack, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and even poor mental health status. They also had significantly lower odds of reporting diabetes even when compared with exercisers.
- Gardeners were more likely to meet the daily requirement of fruits and vegetables.
- Gardeners had better mental and physical health status and a lower risk of 10-year mortality.
What’s more, gardeners were able to meet the recommended 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week with just gardening alone. The federal Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend adults get at least 150 minutes (2.5 hours) a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise and 75 minutes (1.25 hours) a week of vigorous aerobic activity.
Physical activity, when done on a regular basis strengthens the heart muscle. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, moderate- and vigorous-intensity physical activity improves the heart’s ability to pump blood to the lungs and throughout the body. Because of this, more blood flows to the muscles and causes oxygen levels in the blood to rise. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers raking, bagging leaves, using a lawn mower, and other light yard work as moderately intense physical activity.
Surprisingly, people can burn as many calories working in a garden as they can in a gym. “Working in the garden restores dexterity and strength, and the aerobic exercise that is involved can easily use the same number of calories as might be expended in a gym,” Richard Thompson, past president of the Royal College of Physicians in London, England, wrote in a 2108 article published in the journal, Clinical Medicine. “Digging, raking and mowing are particularly calorie intense; there is a gym outside many a window.”
Besides physical activity, gardeners also receive a good dose of the “sunshine vitamin,” better known as vitamin D, which strengthens bones, supports the immune system, and boosts heart health. There’s also evidence that vitamin D can reduce cancer cell growth and helps to lower blood pressure.
Are There Benefits to Indoor Gardening and Having Plants?
While there are a number of studies reporting the well-established benefits of outdoor gardening, there is also research on the health effects of indoor gardening. Many people, especially older adults, who live in urban areas may not have outdoor space for a garden or are not able to dig, plant, or weed or do other work requiring physical intensity. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t garden indoors. Studies suggest that indoor gardening helps with cognition, psychological well-being, social outcomes, and life satisfaction.
In addition, scientists have found that just being around plants indoors or being inside and viewing them outdoors can result in positive health outcomes. For example, a study by researchers in Japan found that simply looking at plants altered electroencephalogram (a test that measures electrical activity in the brain) recordings and reduced stress, fear, anger and sadness, and reduced blood pressure, pulse rate and muscle tension.
One of the pioneering randomized studies on gardening, plants, and green space found that views of plants and trees from post-surgical wards in hospitals improved patients’ moods, reduced their analgesic use, surgical complications and length of stay.
Another major project analyzed 22 case studies mostly from Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. According to the meta-analysis, gardening reduced depression and anxiety levels, and body mass index while increasing life satisfaction, quality of life, and a sense of community. “This study has provided robust evidence for the positive effects of gardening on health,” the report said. “A regular dose of gardening can improve public health.”
Although gardening has its benefits, health and wellness experts suggest another way of protecting your heart is eating a balanced diet that includes whole grains, lean protein sources, and healthy fats, while staying away from processed foods that are heavy in added sugars and salt. And don’t forget to include a wide range of fruits and vegetables, including those that come from your own garden.