By Amelia Hoffbauer
You’ve got to get down in the dirt to truly experience cleaner, healthier living. Finding it tough to exercise? Gardening provides many of the same health benefits for seniors as working out. It’s also good for our mental health.
Here are six perks of gardening for seniors who want to stay young.
6 Ways Gardening Benefits Your Health
1. Strengthens Muscles
The aging process causes our muscles to lose tone due to changes in the tissue and nervous system. Those muscles often become rigid and less able to contract.
We’re not suggesting strenuous exercises such as weight lifting. Gardening is a whole-body workout, targeting many body parts. For example:
- You squat and bend to weed or pick flowers or vegetables or pick up tools, working your legs and core.
- You use your arm muscles and your core when shoveling, raking, or pushing a wheelbarrow.
- Change hands every so often, so you’re not always working your dominant hand or arm, and you’re exercising both sides.
Keep in mind: Anything that keeps you moving helps you stay healthy as you age.
2. Burns Calories
You may find gardening so enjoyable, you won’t realize you’re burning 200 to 400 calories per hour.
How gardening helps your heart: If you’re able to push yourself slightly so you’re a little out of breath, you’ll raise your heartbeat, which will burn even more calories and help protect against heart disease.
How gardening keeps you fit: If you need to lose a little weight, pushing a wheelbarrow or dragging a rake to remove excess dirt or weeds helps you lose those excess pounds.
3. Reduces Stress
It’s hard to feel unhappy or stressed out when you’re surrounded by florals. Flowers trigger the release of dopamine and oxytocin in the brain.
Studies show working the land, weeding, and watering reduces stress-causing cortisol levels. Cortisol also affects our blood pressure and glucose levels, so decreasing the level by gardening has multiple benefits.
Researchers believe working in the garden has this effect because we are outside, in nature, focusing on a task that has tangible results.
Worried gardening will add a new level of stress? Plant low-maintenance native plants, such as showy penstemon and desert mallow. Native plants need only sun, air, and a little water to thrive. You’ll get some exercise without over-exerting yourself.
4. Lowers Dementia Risk
The aging process and thought process have an inverse relationship: As one increases, the other decreases. But any regular activity, including gardening, can cut the risk of Alzheimer’s by 50 percent.
That bears repeating: Any type of physical activity helps the brain create gray matter and keeps dementia at bay.
Physical activity has to be routine, and repeated practices help fend off dementia. So dig, plant, weed, and use that hoe often. It doesn’t have to be fancy.
Doctors say the sooner you grow your garden, the sooner your brain will benefit.
5. Improves Your Immune System
A decline in immune function is part of aging. Our immune system doesn’t always respond to new toxins or even those they have previously encountered. But gardening can make the immune system more efficient.
Here’s how: Encountering (harmless) bacteria and microorganisms in the soil boosts the body’s ability to activate infection-fighting T-cells. Getting dirty in the garden trains the immune system to ignore innocuous bacteria and focus on germs that cause infection.
Gardening also provides increased exposure to the sun and vitamin D, which is essential for the immune system.
6. Increases Dexterity
After the age of 65, hand-grip strength declines. This is because of muscle, joint, and bone deterioration, along with changes in nerves and blood supply.
Gardening helps keep hands strong by keeping those parts moving. Mixing soils, filling pots, pulling weeds, and other gardening activities are often used in therapy for stroke patients to help with agility and small hand functions.
Get Health Benefits from Any Size Garden
You don’t have to have a yard-size garden to burn calories and shape up. Working with balcony and indoor gardens will offer some of the same benefits.
Another alternative? Join a community garden nearby. Community gardens offer the added benefit of helping you cultivate new friendships.
Amelia Hoffbauer has been growing her own fruits and vegetables for more than 60 years, and at 83, shows no signs of slowing down. Her real passion is for her prize rose bushes which have won her six blue ribbons at her county fair.