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Planting the Seeds for Better Health

Everyone knows that exercise is good for you, but if the thought of taking up jogging or getting a gym membership is enough to make you break into a cold sweat, there’s a great alternative right in your own backyard.

 

Combining sunshine, nature and physical activity, gardening is a great way for older adults to get exercise, even if they have some physical limitations.

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), gardening provides a moderate level of physical activity, burning between 210 and 420 calories per hour. The CDC recommends that older adults get two-and-a-half hours of moderate physical activity each week, a goal you could hit with daily pruning sessions in your yard. And the digging, shoveling and lifting that are part of gardening could count as the muscle-strengthening exercise the CDC recommends at least twice a week.

The health-boosting benefits of gardening have been validated through several studies:

One study showed that older adults who gardened enough to meet the CDC requirements for physical activity were in better overall physical condition, suffered fewer limitations in their daily lives due to health problems, and experienced less pain than non-gardeners.1

• The same study showed that active gardeners could grip and pinch harder than non-gardeners, showing that gardening can strengthen your hands.

A small pilot study showed that both children and older adults who took part in a gardening program for a year after surviving cancer were stronger, more agile and had better endurance than when they started the program. They also ate more fruits and vegetables and were more physically active.2

• Gardening also seems to relieve stress.3 Ongoing stress can increase your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and depression.4

Gardening is so good for you, in fact, that some hospitals, surgical centers, nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities offer horticultural therapy to help their patients who are enduring treatment, managing a chronic condition or recovering from a surgery or illness.

Alzheimer’s patients who participated in a horticultural therapy program for 12 weeks, for example, retained memories better and had a longer attention span than peers who didn’t take part.5 They also scored significantly higher on a cognitive assessment known as the Test for Severe Impairment than those who hadn’t gardened. The test assesses motor skills, language comprehension and production, memory, general knowledge as well as problem-solving and decision-making skills.

Candice Shoemaker, Ph.D., head of the Horticultural and Natural Resources Department at Kansas State University, created a pilot horticultural therapy program for people trying to recover their hand and arm strength after a stroke. Shoemaker was the lead author of the study that showed older adult gardeners had stronger hands than non-gardeners, and sure enough, her second study generated similar results. Her findings showed that people who gardened after a stroke made more progress in strengthening their hands and arms than those who did other kinds of physical therapy.

Shoemaker strongly suspects gardening has social benefits as well, which she hopes to quantify in future research. Her hypothesis is based on numerous encounters with people who seem to derive genuine joy and satisfaction from both the activity of gardening itself as well as its “side effects”. People like the avid flower gardener who appreciates when people thank him after Sunday services for providing the decorations for his church’s altar; the woman who uses the peaches from her orchard to bake pies for a fundraiser; or the community gardeners who interact with people of all generations in the shared plots common to urban and suburban areas.

“When we get older, our worlds get smaller,” Shoemaker said. “I want to study these community connections people make from their gardening and see whether gardening can delay or lessen social isolation.”

Health benefits aside, many people simply take great pleasure in tending a garden. Steve Wood, a retired teacher in Sullivan, Indiana, spent eight years as a farmer before starting a career teaching elementary school. During his teaching years, gardening provided a welcome respite from the pressures of the job.

At 68, Wood maintains an extensive and impressive garden that contains everything from flowers to herbs. He writes about his gardening pursuits in a blog aptly named Senior Gardening.

“The magic of putting a seed in the ground and watching a plant grow from it is, for me, an incredible part of God’s creation,” Wood said. “Even though I creak a little bit, I enjoy being on my hands and knees in the garden.”

Wood says he has adjusted his technique as he’s grown older. When he had to have his hip replaced two years ago, his wife took over for a few months. And having had a number of skin cancers removed already, he’s started getting the bulk of his work done in the early morning and late evening and wearing sun-protective clothing. He and his wife also added raised beds, which require less bending down to tend.

“A lot of nursing homes build raised beds that are wheelchair-height or walker-height so that people can work either sitting or standing,” Wood said. “If I become more immobile as I get older, that may be something that I want to do.”

A variety of special tools can also make gardening easier for people with arthritis—everything from a weed-removal tool you can use standing up to extra-strong pruning shears that people with a weaker grip can operate. Shoemaker’s father was able to keep tending his garden after she suggested that he use a stool that turns into a kneeling pad with arms for support when you flip it over.

“As people move into their late 60s and 70s, they often start having aches and pains and think they can’t garden anymore,” Shoemaker said. “But there are adaptations you can make that may allow you to keep gardening.”

Ready to reap the health benefits of sowing seeds in your own garden? Here’s a short list of tips from Wood and Shoemaker to help you get started.

  • Find out what kind of plants grow well in your area. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a free online tool that can help.
  • Send away for free seed catalogs to explore your options. Wood particularly likes Burpee Seeds and Johnny’s Selected Seeds.
  • Remember that you don’t need a plot of land to garden. Plenty of plants will grow well in a container on your balcony, porch or even indoors. Tomatoes and other vegetables, some fruit trees and herbs are all good candidates to start your potted-plant garden.
  • If you do decide to start a garden from scratch, ask someone for help tilling the soil the first time.
  • Accept the fact that your garden won’t be a 100-percent success the first time around—or maybe ever. But it also won’t usually be a 100-percent failure, Wood says. Learn from your mistakes and try again next season.
  • If you live in an urban area or want to garden without starting your own, look for community gardens nearby.

Medicare has neither reviewed nor endorsed this information.

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1. Physical and Psychological Health Conditions of Older Adults Classified as Gardeners or Nongardeners (2009) (http://hortsci.ashspublications.org/content/44/1/206.full)

2. Harvest for health gardening intervention feasibility study in cancer survivors (2013) (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23438359)

3. Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress (2010) (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1359105310365577)

4. https://healthfinder.gov/HealthTopics/Category/health-conditions-and-diseases/heart-health/manage-stress

5. http://www.ahta.org/journal-of-therapeutic-horticulture-18---2007-2008