Plant Your Way to Happiness

It's time to get your hands dirty.

As the weather gets warmer, I love to go out in the garden. I typically plant some fresh vegetables and herbs like tomatoes, oregano, and basil. I also love to add a few handfuls of wildflowers in places that need a little color and calming. May is the ideal time to start planting.

I'm not alone in enjoying this hobby. Gardening's popularity has exploded in recent years. After a dip in spending in 2014, the do-it-yourself yard and garden industry is now up to nearly $48 billion a year as of 2017, with 74% of U.S. households participating in the hobby.

What's more, the 2015 National Gardening Survey showed a growth of 6 million new gardening households... 5 million of them belonging to millennials. These young folks could end up saving this industry (after destroying so many others).

Gardening helps work your muscles, gets your blood flowing, and lowers your stress. Plus, you get the added benefit of healthy foods you've grown yourself... pesticide-free. And the calming effect of colorful and fragrant flowers is hard to beat.

Several studies have looked at the health benefits from simple gardening. Tasks like planting, digging, and weeding all give us the same benefits as low-to-moderate exercise.

That's why I say weeding is the best workout... a workout with results you will see, smell, and even taste.

For instance, a study from Oxford Brookes University in the U.K. found that people who participated in a six-month gardening program had better grip strength. That's crucial as we get older and our joints weaken. It also found that participants boosted their heart rates while gardening.

A study from Kansas State University measured physical activity levels in folks between the ages of 63 and 86 during gardening activities. Participants wore monitors so researchers could measure their heart rates.

Researchers also performed tests in the lab to measure something called VO2 max. That's basically a way to measure how much oxygen your body uses during intense exercise. Higher readings mean you have better endurance and a higher-overall fitness level.

Those who reported gardening regularly had increased heart rates and better VO2 max scores than those who did not garden. The regular gardeners got their heart rates to a level that constitutes moderate exercise. So simply spending at least a half hour a few times a week makes for a good workout practice.

Another benefit for gardening... You can eat what you grow. As we wrote last month, getting local produce cuts down on the number of pesticides you consume. Even better, if you grow it yourself, you know exactly what's on those veggies.

May is a good time of year to plant leafy greens like spinach and collard greens. These are some of the most nutritious vegetables. They boost eye health and memory and contain plenty of calcium, inflammation-fighting antioxidants, and essential vitamins. It's also a good time to plant peas, rhubarb, and peppers.

I also love tomatoes. Every summer I try to plant some, and with warmer temperatures becoming more consistent, you should plant your own soon. I like to put them on salads and in sandwiches, or in different soups and stews. You can even eat them on their own with a little bit of salt and pepper.

Tomatoes also contain plenty of lycopene. Lycopene reduces prostate-cancer risk. It also protects our blood vessels. A study a few years ago out of the University of Eastern Finland found that men with the highest levels of lycopene in their blood were 55% less likely to have a stroke than men with the lowest blood levels of lycopene.

And to maximize your health benefits, be sure to plant more than just vegetables. Taking the time to cultivate a flower garden also offers relief for stress, anxiety, and depression. I've written several times about the power of flowers to boost our moods. But flowers also provide pain relief and improve brain function.

In a 2008 paper published by the American Society for Horticultural Science, hospital patients recovering from appendectomies responded better when they received fresh flowers. These patients needed less pain medication than those without flowers. They also had lower blood pressure and anxiety levels.

Flowers also boost memory scores. One study from Evolutionary Psychology looked at this in folks aged 55 and older. Those who received one or more bouquets of fresh flowers saw the most benefits. They had better moods and better memory recall on tests than those without flowers.

More recently, scientists have looked at the benefits of simply spending time in nature. One study out of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health found an inverse relationship between spending more time in "green space" areas and symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. People who spent more time in local gardens or parks reported fewer mental health symptoms.

And a study from the Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture looked at folks who gardened and those who worked indoors. They found gardeners had significantly lower levels of cortisol. Remember, cortisol is our stress hormone, so higher levels mean more stress and inflammation.

Flowers delight us because of their ability to calm us, stimulate us, and make us feel better. Do what I do and enjoy flowers through gardening at your home.

I recommend planting perennials because they come back year after year – no need to keep planting new flowers. Try daffodils, lilies, tulips, irises, and amaryllises. Once they get going, they multiply and spread, too – something gardeners call "naturalizing." I've planted hundreds of bulbs and love the increasing dividends I see from flowers each year.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health and Wealth Bulletin Research Team
April 16, 2019