More than half the planet’s population now live in cities, with limited access to the natural world. For Europe and Latin America, the figure is more than 70%. Yet contact with nature has numerous benefits for both our physical and mental health.
Gardening is an opportunity for everyone to experience this kind of regular contact with nature, even if they live in built-up areas. For those without a garden of their own, allotments or community gardens are a highly valuable resource. Demand for allotments is increasing and in some locations waiting times have reached as much as 40 years.
But gardens shouldn’t just be a luxury for suburban dwellers. A growing body of evidence shows that they can make a significant contribution to our health and well-being, not just as a way to get some physical exercise but also to improve our mental state. There is even some limited evidence that gardening might play a role in helping people to cope with serious health problems such as cancer. This builds a strong case for governments and housebuilders to do more to provide gardens and allotments to as many people as possible.
Any type of gardening, whether it is in a home or allotment garden, is an opportunity for physical activity. Gardening is typically seen as moderate intensity exercise equivalent to playing doubles tennis or walking at a speed of 3.5mph, and so carries similar fitness benefits. A survey of 269 people that my colleagues and I recently conducted into allotment gardening found a correlation between gardeners and a lower body mass index. We also found a greater percentage of non-gardeners were classified as overweight.
Gardening is also linked to better diets. Home and allotment gardens have long been important for domestic food production, but gardening can also encourage people to eat more healthily and act as an educational resource on nutritious food. In fact, children who take part in gardening and grow their own food have a greater preference for, and increased consumption of, fruit and vegetables.
Perhaps less obvious is the positive impact gardening can have on your mental health. Research has shown that gardeners generally have greater life satisfaction, enhanced self-esteem and fewer feelings of depression and fatigue than non-gardeners.
But more than this, the act of gardening can specifically improve people’s moods. Asking gardeners about their mood before and after a session on their allotment, participants in our survey reported gardening improved self-esteem and reduce feelings of tension, depression and anger. We saw these benefits no matter how long participants had spent on their allotment in the particular session, in the last seven days or how long they had been gardening for in total.
Other research suggests that gardening can increase life satisfaction, and both reduce and promote recovery from stress. In fact, gardening leads to greater reductions in stress following a stress test than either reading indoors or an indoor exercise class.
This last point suggests that the mental benefits of gardening may be more than just a side-effect of the physical exercise involved. One possible reason for this is that gardening, particularly on allotments, can involve social interaction and becoming part of a community. Gardeners often share their knowledge, skills and experiences with each other and by doing so develop relationships and support networks. People with strong social networks have an increased life expectancy, greater resilience to stressful life events and fewer visits to the doctor.
Gardening also provides essential opportunities for contact with nature, which alone has numerous benefits for our mental health. Spending time outdoors in a natural environment helps us to feel less stressed, reduces the symptoms of depression, and enhances our concentration and attention by allowing us to recover from mental fatigue.
All this evidence shows there’s a strong relationship between gardening and health, but we only know for sure that there is correlation, not causation. This means we can’t say that gardening alone is a direct cause of any improvements in health and well-being. We also need to directly examine the immediate effects of gardening on people who have never previously taken part or are suffering from mental and physical ill health.
Despite these limitations, there is still enough evidence backing the benefits of gardening to make a case for encouraging more people to take part and for authorities to provide more gardening opportunities through community gardens or allotments. This could have a substantial impact on the health and well-being of the nation and reduce the health costs associated with conditions such as mental illness, obesity and loneliness.
Carly Wood works for the University of Westminster.