When was the last time you spent time outdoors, soaking up some sun, breathing in the fresh air? If you can’t remember, maybe it’s time you did. There are so many benefits: you can get more of the sunshine vitamin and boost cognitive function. Older adults can reduce their risk of dementia and other physical and mental ailments.
And as research suggests, spending time outdoors can lower stress levels, boost serotonin, and have many other positive effects on your mental health.
One of the best ways to get all the mental and physical benefits of nature in your own backyard (or in a community garden, but more on that later) is by flexing your green thumb. Cultivating your own green space with a little gardening is a relaxing and fun hobby, but it’s also so much more than that.
Gardening Is a NEAT Workout
Gardening is a low to moderate-intensity physical activity that will help you stay more active. It’s often considered a Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) activity.
As you’ll learn in this article, NEAT is a term used to describe the number of calories you burn through daily physical activity outside of a formal exercise regime. It can account for up to 15 to 30 percent of your daily calorie expenditure.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the physical activity from gardening can help you burn between 165 and 330 calories per hour.
Read on to find out more about the effects gardening has on your mental and physical health, how it affects blood glucose and diabetes, and much more.
The Metabolic Health Benefits of Gardening
Currently, the global prevalence of diabetes is estimated to be over 460 million and is projected to reach 578 million by 2030. And metabolic syndrome, a condition that involves insulin resistance and hypertension, is three times more common than diabetes.
It means that over a billion people have been diagnosed with this syndrome. Metabolic syndrome and diabetes are interconnected—up to 80 percent of people with diabetes also have metabolic syndrome, affecting overall wellbeing and making managing the condition more challenging.
The good news is that health care professionals are paying attention. These statistics have encouraged an increasing focus on preventive measures, which may reduce metabolic dysfunction.
One of these preventive measures is encouraging people to try their hands at gardening. A growing body of research shows gardening activities can effectively balance blood glucose (or blood sugar), reduce the risk of heart diseases, and improve overall wellbeing.
Why Metabolic Syndrome is Growing at Such a Rapid Pace
We know cases of metabolic dysfunction and diabetes are rising, but you may be wondering why this is. Over the last couple of centuries, humans have shifted from a hunter-gatherer-like lifestyle into a more sedentary one.
The shifts that have contributed to the growing prevalence of metabolic disorders (such as diabetes) include:
- Urban communities and cities usually mean people will have limited access to nature (they are called “concrete jungles” for a reason).
- Sedentary lifestyles can reduce insulin sensitivity and encourage the body to store glucose (fuel for the body) as adipose tissue or fat.
- Pollution can create physiological stress by increasing harmful molecules called reactive oxygen species within the body.
- Increased stress from a busy lifestyle increases cortisol production, which, over time, can lead to elevated blood glucose or blood sugar levels.
- Increased consumption of processed and nutrient-poor foods can also create physiological stress in the body and increase glucose levels.
- Decreased consumption of whole foods (such as whole fruits, vegetables, and protein sources) reduces the amount of blood sugar balancing and heart-healthy foods you consume.
By targeting each reason, gardening brings individuals closer to achieving their health goals and helping them thrive.
How Gardening Improves Metabolic Health
Gardening is more than an enjoyable activity. Sure, it helps you get fresh air, boosts physical health, and can leave you with delicious fresh produce if you set up your own vegetable garden.
But research has shown that gardening also has a long-lasting, positive impact on a variety of chronic conditions (also termed lifestyle diseases), such as:
- Blood glucose imbalances
- Cardiovascular issues like heart disease
There are various ways in which gardening can improve these conditions and promote better health. Read on to find out about just a few.
Gardening Can Impact Blood Sugar Levels
Gardening may help reduce the risk of diabetes, improve glucose regulation, and help manage type 2 diabetes simply by allowing an opportunity for an individual to make direct contact with the earth.
One study found that direct contact with the earth, nature, and soil improved fasting glucose levels in individuals with non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus. This may be because gardening helps reduce stress and allows people to get more exercise in, both of which can positively impact insulin sensitivity.
Another study investigating the benefits of gardening in the Navajo Nation found that community gardens played an essential role in reducing type 2 diabetes.
Gardening May Help with Heart Diseases
Gardening may also improve heart health and reduce cardiovascular disease risk, especially among people with type 2 diabetes, who can be at a higher risk of heart disease.
People with type 2 diabetes are at higher risk of developing cardiovascular diseases. It may be due to chronic hyperglycemia or high blood glucose levels, which may cause oxidative damage, inflammation, and ultimately damage organs over time.
Research showed that making direct contact with the earth may decrease viscosity and creates a blood-thinning effect by improving the clumping of red blood cells.
By improving blood viscosity and providing a heart-protective function, gardening can improve cardiovascular health.
Gardening May Promotes Healthy Weight Loss
There’s a lot of proof gardening can lead to better health, and one of the positive effects it can have on you has to do with weight management.
One study found that community gardeners had healthier body mass indexes (BMIs) than their neighbors who did not garden.
Interestingly, the study found that female community gardeners had lower BMIs than their non-gardening sisters. Similarly, male community gardeners also had lower BMIs than their non-gardening brothers. Overall, these gardeners had lowered risk of being overweight or obese.
The study suggests that these health benefits are due to more than just the consumption of fruits and vegetables (which their neighbors also had access to) or genes (which siblings share).
It could be due to gardening being a form of low to moderate-intensity exercise that, like other physical activity of the same intensity, helps burn adipose, or fat, tissue.
Regardless of these findings, remember that BMI is just one metric and should not be used to dictate health. Body composition may be more important to focus on.
A unique benefit to the kind of exercise gardening provides is that it mimics movements in line with kinetic therapy, promoting healthy posture and bone health.
Research also shows that individuals can reap these benefits simply by harvesting, sowing seeds, or any other movement typically involved in gardening.
The Mental Health Benefits of Gardening
Gardening also has a positive impact on your mental health. One meta-analysis found that the activity is associated with reducing depression, stress, and anxiety along with an increase in quality of life and a sense of community.
There are a variety of ways in which gardening improves mental health. One way is that gardening can allow you to get vitamin D from sunlight exposure. Vitamin D can boost your mood—in fact, people with vitamin D deficiencies (often seen among those with diabetes) can experience low moods.
Another way that gardening improves mental health is by bringing meditative awareness to your surroundings. It helps you orient yourself to being part of a larger ecosystem, an awareness that promotes feelings of peace.
Lastly, research has shown that direct contact with the earth, as is experienced during gardening, can regulate the nervous system and activate the “rest and digest” mode.
A Note on Horticultural Therapy
The mental health benefits of gardening are so impressive that there’s a term that points to them. As the American Horticultural Therapy Association details, horticultural therapy is a time-proven practice that has helped people with mental health conditions like anxiety and depression since the 19th century.
If you’re gardening for your mental health, consider joining a gardening group or working with a horticultural therapist to get the most out of the activity.
Gardening Encourages a Whole Foods Focused Diet
It helps prevent the risk of diseases and ailments, boosts your mental health, and enables you to stay physically active. And it can also encourage you to eat healthier!
One of the benefits of having a garden, whether in your backyard or a community garden, is it mimics a farm-to-table approach that helps consume various foods with blood sugar-stabilizing fiber.
By planting and harvesting fruits and vegetables, you can grow a lot of your own food and access a variety of seasonal nutrient-dense foods right in your own backyard.
Remember, good nutrition and physical activity go hand-in-hand. So, incorporating both of these together will help you achieve your health goals for the long term. With an activity like gardening, this becomes so much easier—you can (literally) reap the benefits of your harvest.
Remember, there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to health and wellness. So it’s a good idea to work with healthcare professionals, physical trainers, credentialed dietitians, and nutritionists to find the perfect diet and exercise plan for your needs.
How Do I Start Gardening?
So, you’ve decided gardening is for you. But where do you begin? Here’s a beginners guide to getting started:
- The first step to gardening is to think of what you want to plant: fruits, flowers, veggies, herbs, or a combination. If you're a beginner, it's best to start with just one.
- Next, choose a location that allows for adequate sunlight and water (depending on what you’re planting, of course).
- If you’re a complete beginner, it may be best to choose a couple of potted plants with rich soil and work your way to planting beds in your garden.
- As you work your way up, you will want to test and improve the soil you’re using before diving into the intricacies of planting beds.
- If you're out in the sun for prolonged periods, remember to wear sunscreen.
What If I Live In a City or Urban Community?
If you live in an urban community (like a crowded city), you may have limited access to nature and fewer opportunities to garden. However, you can create opportunities to garden. Here are some tips:
- Become a plant parent! If you’re not ready to make the leap into gardening, one way to start small would be to buy a plant (or two), water it, watch it grow, and learn how to help it thrive. Make sure you research the type of plant you’ve bought and what nutrients it needs to thrive.
- Find community gardens in your area. More and more urban areas are creating community gardens to help individuals have more access to nature and the benefits of gardening.
- Start a balcony garden. It's a great option if you live in a building and don’t have a backyard to work with.
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Carlee's training at Western Illinois University and an internship at the Memphis VA Hospital lead her to a career in outpatient counseling and bariatric nutrition therapy. In these positions, Carlee realized many of the disease states (upwards of 80%!) her patients experienced were actually preventable. She knew she had to dig deeper into preventative health, which led her to NutriSense and CGMs.