Just how good is gardening for you?

Posted on January 20, 2016 by Eleanor McKenzie
Mature couple gardening

I’m not very good at telling the difference between weeds and flowers, and to be honest, I can apparently kill a houseplant just by looking at it. Other people’s plants seem to survive when I look after them, possibly because they have developed a robust constitution that can withstand the ministrations of a person who has absolutely no green fingers whatsoever. I do have friends who are avid gardeners; they browse seed catalogues while I read Vanity Fair and they never seem to be far from a pair of secateurs and gardening gloves. So, I was interested to discover that an Essex University study has recently reported that just 30 minutes per week spent at an allotment is a really beneficial body and brain workout.

Weeding out the blues

I think we can all accept that gardening is good exercise. You have to bend, stretch, kneel down, get up, carry things, use a wheelbarrow and a lawnmower; it also gets you outside where you take in more oxygen than if you sit in front of the TV all day. Indeed, the study revealed that seven in every ten non-gardeners were overweight compared with only 47% of gardeners. The gardeners also had a significantly lower Body Mass Index than the non-gardeners.

However, the research also showed that when people even just pottered around an allotment garden for as little as 30 minutes per week, they showed an improvement in feelings of self-esteem and enjoyed a happier mood simply by “weeding out tension, depression, anger and confusion.”

Helping with the stress of cancer

Now that is a very positive benefit. A city dwelling school friend of mine who was fighting breast cancer got herself an allotment as part of her personal armoury in the battle; another one was learning to play the guitar. She told me that going to the allotment and spending time with her vegetables had opened up an aspect of life for her that she’d let escape from her in the hectic business world she operated in; it provided a space for her to be with herself, alone.

The Allotment Study

The Universities of Essex and Westminster collaborated on the study that was published in the Journal of Public Health in October 2015. The lead researchers, who are experts in nutrition and exercise science, wanted to look at how allotment gardening might improve the nation’s health. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have a private garden and as the media has shown in recent years, there has been a revival in interest in allotments and in some parts of the country, the waiting lists to get an allotment are growing daily.

The researchers hope that the study will encourage local authorities to find more space for allotments. Dr Carly Wood of the University of Essex remarked that allotment gardening could potentially “contribute to a greener and healthier economy focused on the prevention of ill-health.”  She added that this approach could “result in substantial savings to the UK economy, particularly in the treatment of mental illness, obesity, cardiovascular disease and loneliness.” How lovely it would be for the lonely to have a place to go where people with a similar interest are available for a chat.

The study took place in North West England and there were 269 participants split into current allotment gardeners and non-gardeners from a spread of places across the region. They answered questionnaires before and after gardening sessions, with the emphasis being on mood and mental wellbeing. The non-gardeners were what researchers call “the control group,” so all gardeners responses were studied in relation to that group. The results showed that the gardeners were happier, generally healthier and had more energy than the non-gardeners. It is also worth noting that the study shows that you don’t have to have been gardening for years to feel the benefits; the gardening feel-good factor starts right away!

Positive responses

Professor John Ashton, President of the UK Faculty of Public Health (FPH) praised the report and said that its findings are an important part of reducing stigma around mental health and finding a solution. He said that the FPH would welcome “more community allotments and opportunities for people to have safe, green spaces.” The onus now is on authorities around the country to turn neglected land into allotments.

It seems to me that the message of this study is that you don’t need to be suffering from a health problem, mental or otherwise, to benefit from getting out in the garden, and if you do know somebody who is under the weather, then perhaps you can help them discover the benefits of allotment gardening in your community – where they can plant a better future.

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.