Each morning Gene Gach checks the fifty or so pots of bromeliads alongside his home. He looks with unconcealed pleasure at the 25-foot stand of flourishing Chinese bamboo that he grew from a single stalk, and his eyes survey the lawn and a variety of flowers and rosebushes. After playing golf and having lunch with his wife, he spends up to two hours working in his garden. Gene Gach loves gardening. “When I stand in my garden, I can feel the seeds under the earth—everything growing,” he says.
Gardening gives the 87-year-old Gach “a connection to life.” It is a healthful, invigorating activity. Regardless of one’s age, and for older adults, gardening is not only a possibility, but a highly desirable pursuit with numerous health benefits.
Enjoy Gardening and Good Health
By Judith P. Nembhard
It’s a Healthy Hobby
Health benefits are foremost among the observable advantages of gardening. Studies have shown that regular gardening in fresh air can significantly reduce the risk of many physical ailments, among them: high blood pressure, osteoporosis, strokes and depression. In addition, researchers have found that gardening can improve strength and stamina and give seniors increased flexibility. It can also provide the relaxation needed for a more sound sleep at night. The variety of activities in gardening can prove therapeutic, benefiting seniors’ health and well being, allowing them to stay active and productive.
A trio of researchers from Kansas State University cite that older adult gardeners have better hand strength and pinch force. Candace Shoemaker, one of the three researchers, adds that maintaining strength in the hands is a concern as people age.
Sin-Ae Park, another member of the research team, says, “We found that with gardening tasks, older adults can, among other things, improve their hand strength and self-esteem at the same time.” Gardening, the researchers conclude, keeps older hands strong and nimble.
One area in which gardening is now considered to be particularly beneficial is in the fight against osteoporosis, a progressive loss of bone density that often results in fractured or broken bones. A University of Kansas study, among 3,310 women age 50 and older, found that women who garden or do yard work at least once each week have higher bone density measurements than women who are sedentary, or even those who walk, jog or swim.
The reason researchers give for this occurrence is that of all the different types of exercise, only gardening and weight training involve the actions that help build strong bone and muscle. Gardening tasks can include pulling weeds, pushing a wheelbarrow or lawnmower or turning over soil, thus generating the desired movements to strengthen bone and muscle. This kind of exercise also aids in balance that is critical for avoiding falls and possible bone fractures or breaks.
An added facet of gardening is that it provides exposure to sunshine, which increases the production of Vitamin D in the body. In turn, this allows the body to absorb more calcium, which is also important for building strong bones.
Gardening also connects people with nature. Edward O. Wilson, a Harvard University naturalist, believes that “nature holds the key to health.” He coined the term “biophilia,” which means the love of living things, to describe his belief that as part of the natural world, we are connected to it and can be restored by it.
Some experts now think that nature’s restorative ability can be seen in its effect on lowering blood pressure, boosting the body’s immune functions and reducing stress. To reap the benefits, all one has to do is plant a few things. Surprisingly, researchers have found that even looking at a beautiful picture of a nature scene can bring positive healing results.
This belief that nature heals is nothing new. More than 20 years ago, a study by Texas A&M University Professor Roger S. Ulrich provided strong evidence that nature helps to heal us. Ulrich, a pioneer in therapeutic environments, found that when patients recovering from gallbladder surgery looked out a window at trees, they had significantly shorter hospital stays. They also had fewer complaints and took less pain medication than those patients who looked at a brick wall. Gardeners, by spending time in nature, benefit from the same healing properties.
Enjoy Your Healthy Foods
The word “gardening” may conjure up images of azaleas, coleus and forsythia, and many seniors do turn their green thumbs toward a flower garden. However, research has revealed that gardening, which yields green leafy vegetables and succulent fruits, can have far-reaching beneficial health effects for older adults. Added to the physical activity that enhances health and body functions, a fruit and vegetable garden is a source of healthful, inexpensive fresh foods.
Today many seniors are growing edible gardens, that is, gardens that contain not only flowers, but also herbs, berries and plants meant to be eaten. Pumpkins, lettuce, tomatoes, corn and beans; along with fruits, such as strawberries and blueberries; are all suitable for edible gardens. Vegetables can be eaten raw or cooked, and herbs, such as basil and mint, can be used in salads and added for flavor in cooked dishes. Edible vegetable gardens are good addition for a healthy diet.
Even a Container Will Do
Some older adults who have scaled back their living arrangements to an apartment or retirement community may say, “I don’t have room to make a garden.” But lack of space does not have to be a hindrance. Container gardening is the answer.
Do you remember in grade school when your teacher gave you a bean to plant and grow in a container? It was pretty simple then, and it’s just as easy now. It entails no strenuous outdoor activity, and a windowsill or patio offer enough space to create a mini vegetable garden.
Tomatoes, beans, zucchini, squash, green onions, peppers, eggplants and lettuce are all well suited for growing in containers. These can be grown from seeds or seedlings from a nursery. An old pot or an old dresser drawer, a bucket or a breadbox—all can be converted into useful containers and are sure to be great conversation starters. This kind of gardening can set the imagination in motion and awaken creativity.
Container gardening is a great activity for seniors with limited mobility. They can sit and perform most tasks with ease.
Beyond the beauty and food that gardens provide, the added benefit of exercise for seniors is immeasurable. Gardens make exercise accessible. They eliminate the need to drive to a gym; instead seniors can find an outlet for physical activity as close as the backyard.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), along with the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), recommends that people get at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity on most days each week in order to maintain optimal health or to improve it. Older Americans are less likely to fulfill this requirement, yet they are at higher risk for chronic diseases associated with aging.
Boredom during exercise routines is one of the reasons many seniors fall short of meeting the minimum requirements established by the CDC and the ASCM. The variety of tasks and the constant change in activity involved with gardening make it fun to do and easier for seniors to get the desired 30 minutes of physical activity.
Garden tasks not only change with daily chores, but also from day to day. They increase physical movement, help to maintain mobility and encourage the use of motor skills, such as walking, bending and reaching. Other activities, including mixing soil, getting the soil ready for planting and mulching, stretch the muscles and provide cardiovascular benefits.
Feel Good – Be Happy
This enjoyable way to stay fit benefits both general health and mood. There is something about being in the outdoors that is relaxing and energizing at the same time. Researchers have found that weeding or cultivating can help you burn about 200 calories in an hour. More strenuous garden work, such as clearing weeds, can burn as much as 600 calories per hour. Experts believe that even low to moderate-intensity activity, when done for as little as 30 minutes a day, will produce a number of health benefits, including a happier mood.
Make New Friends
Added to the physical advantages of gardening are the social benefits. Interaction with neighbors over the garden fence takes place effortlessly. Additionally, the harvested crops provide opportunities to share that can enhance friendships and relationships.
Time spent in the garden is also a chance to get out of the house and into the outdoors, keeping seniors who live alone from feeling isolated and lonely. For some, it can be a time to love, pamper and nurture a plant and watch it grow from seedling to maturity.
To make the gardening experience more enjoyable, the following tips can be valuable in helping prevent injury:
• Warm up before starting to garden. Doing a few stretches will help reduce any soreness that may be experienced later.
• Garden early in the morning or late in the day. The midday sun and heat can exhaust even the healthiest senior.
• Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. Adding a wide brim hat, covering exposed skin and using sunscreen will help protect against sun damage.
• Wear gloves to prevent cuts or insect bites. Take care of cuts, scrapes and bruises right away to avoid infection.
• Bend at the knees, not at the waist, when picking up tools or plants.
• Use lightweight tools that are easy to handle and paint the handles of garden tools a bright easy-to-see color.
• Know your limitations. When feeling fatigued, take a break.
• Drink plenty of water and fruit juices.
• Be careful with power tools. Even the smallest one can become hazardous in tired hands.
• Observe safety instructions when using potting mix, sprays or fertilizers. Read and follow directions carefully.
As the spring and summer seasons approach, now is the perfect time to plan your garden. Whether flower, vegetable or even container gardens, you are sure to enjoy many health benefits.
Judith P. Nembhard is a Chattanooga resident. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland where she received her Ph.D. in English education. Judith is a member of the board of directors for the Chattanooga Writers Guild and has two sons. A lifelong educator, today Judith is a published writer and an adjunct instructor at Chattanooga State Technical Community College.