Most women over 60 have heard the advice, keep moving, as a key to better health. Gardening is hard to beat for the many health benefits it offers–especially for women. It can improve cardio vascular health, it has minimal impact on the joints and helps us develop agility (all that bending and squatting in the garden).
Working in the garden also increases hand coordination and strength and encourages weight loss. It can sharpen our brains and increase memory, and it is focusing and restful and calming.
And for something right out of Nature’s handbook: there is beneficial bacteria–Mycobacterium vaccae–in the soil. This bacteria, according to a 2019 study, has anti-inflammatory, immunoregulatory, and stress resilience properties. In short, gardening may help improve our immune systems.
As Cicero said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.”
Let’s look at some of the benefits of gardening
1. Exercises every major muscle group
The key to staying with any exercise program is, we need to enjoy it. If it’s boring, we won’t persist, no matter how good our intentions. So if you love being outdoors and you love working in your garden, you are likely to forget that you are even exercising.
But you are. And gardening is not sissy exercise. We can expect to burn about 330 calories doing one hour of light gardening and yard work. That is more calories than if we walked for the same amount of time.
Raking and cutting grass, shoveling and digging, carrying pots, bending over to pick weeds, planting, moving pots, and other gardening tasks provide a total body workout. Gardening exercises every major muscle group in our bodies.
2. Improves cardio-vascular health
Gardening provides many of the health benefits of regular, more intense exercise—and it’s an activity more naturally in tune with our 60+ selves. It has been shown to significantly lower the risk of a heart attack or stroke. In a 12-year Swedish study of 4,000 adults over 60, researchers found that physical activities like gardening helped cut the risk of heart attack or stroke by up to 30 percent. The benefits seem to come from the physical exercise and from the reduced stress that results from gardening.
A welcome side effect of the cardio vascular benefits of gardening as exercise is how it is likely to improve our sleep. Any exercise done outside in fresh air and sunshine will help bring on sleep, particularly if we are constantly moving around. And since doing what we enjoy is stress relieving (one of the main inhibitors of relaxed sleep) the whole experience should help us to fall asleep faster and sleep deeper.
3. Gardening is minimal impact on the joints and can increase agility
As we age, we lose cartilage in our joints, particularly in the knees. When we were young, we jogged and jumped and didn’t give a thought to our cartilage. High impact exercise in our youth, however, along with weight gain, translates into pressure on the joints where we are losing cartilage due to age. We can garden at our own pace without stressing our joints. Pulling up a chair to a border and bending over to weed will stretch your back without stressing the knees.
4. Gardening increases hand coordination and strength
It’s frustrating not be able to open a jar easily, something we’re more likely to experience over the age of 60. Hand strength, flexibility, and coordination are essential for doing everyday tasks. The digging, planting and pulling that gardening requires is perfect for improving our fine motor skills and muscles, and for building hand strength.
When working in your garden, be sure to position your body naturally and be careful when doing repeated movements. Remember to change tasks frequently before you feel that any strain, so as to avoid potential injuries like carpal tunnel or tendonitis. Remember to use both your right and left hands as well. An added benefit? Using your non-dominant hand is one of many exercises that help brain function as we age.
5. Gardening encourages weight loss
Gardening can help us avoid age-related weight gain or even shed a few pounds. According to a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, gardeners have a lower body mass index, and are less likely to be overweight or obese, than non-gardeners. The average weight loss? About 11 pounds for women and 16 pounds for men. And remember that you can expect to consume about 330 calories for one hour of gardening. The trick is to keep moving.
6. Gardening sharpens brain function and helps protect your memory
Doing more physical activities like gardening (and dancing and riding an exercise bike) increases brain volume in several areas, according to a study of nearly 900 older adults by researchers at UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh. Analyzing questionnaires and MRI scans from the 30-year Cardiovascular Health Study, they discovered that brain volume increased in several areas including the hippocampus, the area responsible for memory. Those whose brain size increased from exercise cut their Alzheimer’s risk in half.
Another long-term study followed more than 2,800 older adults for 16 years, tracking all types of dementia and assessing various lifestyle factors. Researchers found daily gardening to represent the single biggest way to reduce the risk for dementia—it reduced incidence by 36%.
7. Gardening helps relieve stress
Scientists in the Netherlands conducted a study to measure the effectiveness of various leisure activities on reducing cortisol in the body. Thirty people were divided into two groups. Then, the participants were exposed to the same stressful task. Afterwards, one group gardened outdoors for 30 minutes while participants in the other group read a book. Finally the cortisol level in their saliva was measured. The cortisol level of the gardeners dropped significantly compared to the readers. The gardeners also reported feeling more positive after gardening. In contrast, the readers reported that their moods had actually gotten worse.
Gardening is positively correlated to reduce depression and anxiety, according to a 2017 meta-analysis in Preventive Medicine Reports that looked at 22 case studies. Gardening gives individuals control over a situation in which they might feel helpless, while teaching them a new skill that can restore confidence.
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