Why gardening is good for the brain

Multiracial women preparing flowers plants inside home garden outdoor - Focus on african woman face
Being surrounded by nature while gardening can be very beneficial for cognitive ability, a new study reveals. (Getty Images)

Britons have always had a deep love for gardening. Of the 87% of British households that have a garden, 42% of UK residents say they garden as a hobby, according to statistics from Our Country Garden.

Of them, more than half (51%) of avid gardeners are aged 55 and older. This demographic of gardeners are in good stead, as new research shows that gardening can keep the brain healthy in old age.

Researchers from Edinburgh University also found that spending time in the garden could keep dementia at bay up to the age of 80, no matter what your financial or educational background is.

Researchers wrote in their paper, which was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology: "The mentally stimulating nature of gardening, as yet relatively unexplored, might contribute to brain reserve even in older age.

"These results identify a ­promising new line of inquiry for understanding the lifestyle factors that may promote successful cognitive ageing."

Being surrounded by nature is important for our bodies and brains. (Getty Images)
Being surrounded by nature is important for our bodies and brains. (Getty Images)

The study tracked nearly 500 Scottish participants throughout decades. They were first tested at age 11, then asked to sit the same exam at age 79, and provided details of their lifestyle and brain health.

Nearly 30% of those tested had never gardened, but 44% did so regularly. The study found that, on average, those who gardened frequently or sometimes had better cognitive ability now than they did at age 11.

However, those who never gardened scored lower compared to when they were children. The improvement in brain health associated with gardening remained even after the researchers adjusted for education, social class, health factors and physical activity.

"Identifying lifestyle behaviours that facilitate healthy cognitive ageing is of major public interest for the prevention of cognitive decline and dementia," said the authors.

"The relationship between gardening and healthy cognitive ageing has largely been overlooked. [It involves] not only physical exertion but creativity and planning.

"Engaging in ­gardening ­projects, learning about plants, and general garden upkeep, involve complex cognitive processes such as memory and executive function.

"Consistent with the ‘use it or lose it’ framework of cognitive function, more engagement in gardening may be directly associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline."

Gardening is part of the NHS's green social prescribing practice. (Getty Images)
Gardening is part of the NHS's green social prescribing practice. (Getty Images)

Gardening can bring significant benefits, from physical to mental. Commenting on the study, Gillian Councill, executive lead on brain health and innovation at the charity Alzheimer Scotland, told The Sunday Post that the results were "encouraging".

"People often don’t realise the wide range of benefits it can bring. For example, digging, planting and pulling weeds will increase hand strength, which research has shown can boost brain health.

"Growing your own food can help you eat a healthier diet; another key factor. And staying connected to other people is beneficial for brain health, so community allotments are a great place to socialise, reducing loneliness and isolation."

The NHS even includes gardening in its green social prescribing practices, which supports people to engage in "nature-based interventions and activities to improve their mental and physical health".

Gardening and similar activities, like local walking schemes, conservation volunteering, or open water swimming, have the potential to:

  • Improve mental health outcomes

  • Reduce health inequalities

  • Reduce demand on the health and social care system

The NHS recommends that adults should aim to do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous activity a week, and to spread exercise evenly over four to five days a week, or every day.

This is good news for those who love gardening and do it regularly. When you’re out and about in your garden, walking from plant to plant to water them, bending over to pull up weeds, raking up leaves, digging up soil, and harvesting fruits and vegetables, you’re doing plenty of physical exercise.

In fact, research from Harvard Medical School found that 30 minutes of general gardening burns a comparable amount of calories to the same amount of time spent playing badminton, volleyball or practising yoga.

According to The British Psychological Society, gardening also provides "a more creative and enjoyable way to undertake physical exercise", which in turn improves psychological health.

Research has emphasised the importance of being surrounded by nature and how important it is for our mental wellbeing. This could be why people who garden reap the benefits of it for their mental health.

A recent survey by Toolstation, carried out in conjunction with Mental Health Awareness Week, found that gardening is the most relaxing DIY task among Brits.

Dr Gurpreet Kaur, clinical psychologist, explains that gardening is so calming because it brings us closer to nature.

"Being surrounded by greenery and engaging in gardening aligns with our evolutionary connection to natural environments, fostering a sense of well-being," he said.

"Exposure to greenery, soil, and plants can trigger positive emotional responses and contribute to a sense of tranquillity. It can also help with mindfulness as gardening requires a focus on the present moment whilst incorporating natural elements into human environments.

"Gardening can help with stress reduction as ecotherapy, the interaction with nature, has been linked to the regulation of cortisol, the stress hormone. Spending time in a garden environment may help lower cortisol levels, promoting a sense of calmness and reducing stress.

"It is often used for therapeutic benefits for the treatment of various mental health conditions due to its ability to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. This may be related to the tactile element which engages multiple senses, including touch, sight, and smell. The tactile sensations of handling soil and plants can be soothing and provide a sensory-rich experience that contributes to relaxation."

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