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Sure, growing your own tomatoes or peppers is an inexpensive way to eat healthy—and nothing perks up a salad like a handful of freshly picked herbs. But gardening delivers a bushel of other benefits as well. Research shows it can reduce stress, fight heart disease and even boost your memory. That's no small potatoes!
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"I threw myself into gardening when I was getting a divorce. There's no better therapy," says Tina Shoup, a Vermont lawyer who has been growing her own veggies, herbs, berries and apples for 30 years. It's true: Hoe more, stress less. A 2017 review of more than 20 studies found that regular gardening reduces tension as well as anger, fatigue and anxiety. One reason? Gardening gets you outside, a natural mood booster. In one small study, researchers compared outdoor gardening to indoor reading for stress relief. After 30 minutes, both groups reported better moods—but cortisol tests showed that stress levels had dropped much more for the gardeners, and their sunny moods lasted longer.
Related: How to Start a Vegetable Garden
Grow a garden, grow your brain. That's what researchers at UCLA and the University of Pittsburgh found in a 2016 study of nearly 900 older adults. Looking at questionnaires and MRI scans from the 30-year Cardiovascular Health Study, the scientists found that doing more physical activities like gardening, dancing and riding an exercise bike actually upped brain volume in several areas—including the hippocampus, the part that controls memory. The people whose brain size increased from exercise cut their Alzheimer's risk in half.
It's no secret that gardening works all the major muscle groups: legs, arms, back, core. But researchers from Kansas State University were surprised to learn that it also increases hand strength. In a small study of older adults, doing simple tasks like filling pots and mixing soil improved their grip—and their self-esteem.
Not a beets fan? Try planting them, and see if you don't change your mind. Once you've nurtured something from a seed, you're more likely to pile it on your plate. That goes for little picky eaters, too—multiple studies suggest that kids who learn to garden eat more fruits and vegetables.
Another planting perk: Gardening not only gives you farm-fresh, in-season produce right at your doorstep—it also lets you explore new flavors and varieties. "There are a lot of varieties of veggies and herbs that you can't get in the grocery store, often because they don't ship well," Shoup says. "I grow a tromboncino squash that tastes so much better than the zucchini you find in the grocery. I love growing something I can't find anywhere else."
Related: Easy Foods to Grow Without a Garden
A flourishing garden does more than feed your body—it feeds your senses. That may sound like warm fuzzy talk, but scientists take it seriously. To help astronauts fight sensory deprivation and ease the boredom and isolation of long missions, NASA researchers began gardening experiments. Using LED lights for 10 hours a day, space station crews grew zucchini, zinnias, sunflowers, soybeans and more. The space farmers said they looked forward to checking their plants each day, and they were surprised at how seeing their bright colors helped during weeks of dark orbit.
Helping things grow can do more than boost a blah mood. In a small, three-month study of people with clinical depression, working in a garden improved their symptoms. In particular, the participants were able to focus more and brood less—even months after the program ended.
Related: 13 Easy-to-Grow Vegetables and Herbs
Want to be kind to your ticker? Plant a garden. In a 12-year Swedish study of 4,000 older adults, researchers found that physical activities like gardening helped cut the risk of heart attack or stroke by up to 30 percent. In fact, gardening provided as many health benefits as regular, more intense exercise. The key, researchers say, especially as you age: find something you love that gets you off your butt. Hello, gardening!
Think puttering in a garden isn't much of a workout? You'd be surprised. For a 150-pound person, one hour of hoeing, weeding and digging zaps 324 calories. Some studies also suggest that compared to nongardeners, gardeners tend to have lower body mass indexes (BMIs). That's a big deal, since a higher BMI can increase your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and other serious health problems.
Plain and simple, gardening makes you happy. In a survey of older adults by Texas A&M and Texas State universities, gardeners reported more optimism and energy, better health and greater life satisfaction than nongardeners.
But as any gardener knows, you don't need studies to tell you that. "The garden is the best place to notice the little things that are so important," says Kathryn Connell, a lifelong gardener and the former owner of a small perennials business in Vermont. "Like a couple of frogs sitting in a flowerpot full of water ... or a patch of dirt that smells just like patchouli. So much happens out there that you don't have time to worry about stuff. And then there's the complete and total satisfaction of looking back at where you just weeded or mulched. So lovely."