Gardening for Health by Cassie Lorie OTR/L
Updated: Nov 20, 2021
Gardening is an instrument of grace. — May Sarton
As an occupational therapist, I am always in awe of the power of occupation — the everyday activities that we need and want to do — to improve health and maintain well being.
These everyday activities — from dressing, to reading, to going out for lunch— require complex physical, mental and social skills that we tend to take for granted because we’ve learned them over a lifetime. Engaging in meaningful occupation helps us to build our skills and teaches us to adapt when we face new challenges.
So, what does this have to do with gardening for health? Well, I’ll tell you.
A few years ago, I met Bernadette, a remarkable woman. The first thing I learned about her was that she lives with Parkinson’s disease. Soon after that I learned that she plants an enormous vegetable garden every year. Over the summer, she‘d send out emails recounting her labors in the dirt and battles with rabbits eating her tomatoes. Digging, raking, and weeding were the exercises keeping her moving and motivated. Her delight and pride at harvest time was obvious. It was clear that gardening, one of her favorite occupations, was not just a hobby but also important in her well being.
I asked Bernadette to share with me why she feels gardening is good for individuals with Parkinson‘s. This is what she wrote:
• I have found that most plants do not care if you have Parkinson's. They are non-judgmental. This allows for a very safe relationship.
• Some plants work to make you feel good, they actually cheer you up!.
• All gardens love you when you pay attention to them! You can forget about your troubles and tribulations to just concentrate on the veggies or shrubs or flowers.
• Weeds are good for you, too. Anger, disappointment, anxiety disappears as you remove weeds!! They hold up well to you taking out those emotions on the pig weed, red root, and others.
• Nothing makes you feel on top of your game more than a bouquet of roses, daisies, or zinnias set in a vase placed on your outdoor or indoor table.
• There is nothing better than fresh tomatoes, cucumber, lettuce, spinach right out of the garden or raised beds and immediately washed and thrown into a salad! You can skip the dressing!
• Taking care of your garden gets you out of the house into the sun and fresh air. Do use the sun screen and wear a sun hat. People with Parkinson’s are suseptable to Melanoma.
• It goes without saying, gardening provides exercise. Don’t overdo it and make sure to hydrate your plants AND yourself!!
A growing amount of health research shows what Bernadette already knows —
“This meta-analysis of 22 case studies is the first to provide a quantitative synthesis of the evidence that gardening is beneficial for human health. Overall, the results suggest that participating in gardening activities has a significant positive impact on health. Indeed, the positive association with gardening was observed for a wide range of health outcomes, such as reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms, stress, mood disturbance, and BMI, as well as increases in quality of life, sense of community, physical activity levels, and cognitive function.“
“Participants in this study showed significantly increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and platelet-derived growth factor (PDGF) by performing 20-min gardening activities with low to moderate intensity. “
BDNF promotes neuroprotection and neuroregeneration. In animal models of Parkinson’s disease (PD), BDNF enhances the survival of dopaminergic neurons, improves dopaminergic neurotransmission and motor performance. PDGF has been shown to promote blood vessel growth and neuronal survival.
“Why does gardening seem to be so beneficial to health? It combines physical activity with social interaction and exposure to nature and sunlight. Sunlight lowers blood pressure as well as increasing vitamin D levels in the summer and the fruit and vegetables that are produced have a positive impact on the diet. 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.“