Back

Why gardening makes us feel better – and how to make the most of it

Gardens can be great for the environment and for wildlife - and they’re good for people too, according to an increasing body of research

Gardening has a long and connected history to science and medicine. For centuries gardens have been a source not only of food on the table but also remedies to treat common ailments. Some of these, such as St John’s wort for depression and willow for headaches, have been embraced by modern science. But what about the benefits of gardens and gardening themselves? Are they proven, and if so, how can we make the most of them?
 

Make gardening part of your everyday life

It is increasingly acknowledged that gardens and green spaces are associated with better physical, social and mental health(1). British physician Sir Muir Gray famously said that everyone needs a ‘Natural Health Service’ as well as a National Health Service.

The question still remains as to how we embed gardens and gardening into daily life for everyone. The NHS has, since January 2019, officially included social prescribing in its Long Term Plan(2). As the population ages and healthcare costs spiral, social prescribing and preventative healthcare will likely take on renewed importance.

There is an opportunity for gardening to play a central role in improving our nation's mental health and wellbeing; currently the RHS is undertaking research to better understand how to maximise on the health benefits of gardening.
 

Feel the multiple benefits of exercise

It’s common knowledge that exercise is good for you. The NHS considers it essential to living a healthy and fulfilling life and it’s medically proven that people who do regular physical activity have up to a 35% lower risk of coronary heart disease and stroke. Physical and mental illnesses associated with our increasingly sedentary urban lifestyles have a growing economic and social cost(3).

But lesser known is the role that gardening can play in helping to keep you fit and healthy. Gardeners might be delighted to learn that the number of calories burnt from 30 minutes of gardening(4) is comparable to playing badminton, volleyball or practising yoga.

However, as with any physical activity, like running or weight lifting, there is the potential for injury if done incorrectly. The RHS has embarked on research with Coventry University to better understand how common garden practices like digging can be done with minimal muscle strain. Using technology more commonly found on Hollywood film sets we’ve been examining, for the first time, the loads exerted on the body’s joints, bones and muscles to help people enjoy gardening and digging for longer. 
 

Discover health and happiness

The benefits of being in the garden run much deeper than just exercise. A King’s Fund report on the health benefits of gardening were found to be broad and diverse, with research studies showing significant reductions in depression and anxiety and improved social functioning(5). Gardening can also help maintain independence and prevent cognitive decline. Tokyo and Exeter Universities also found robust evidence(6) for the positive effects of gardening on health, calling for governments and health organisations to promote gardening.

This research, specific to gardens and gardening, is increasingly supporting what we know about green space(7) in general – which includes private gardens as well as urban parks, national parks and areas of wilderness.
 

See your greens: proof that green space boosts wellbeing

In 2014, researchers from the University of Exeter Medical School analysed mental health data from 1,000 urban residents and used high-resolution mapping to track where the subjects had lived over 18 years. They found that people living near to green space reported less mental distress(8), even after adjusting for income, education, and employment. In 2009, a team of Dutch researchers found a lower incidence of 15 illnesses – including depression, anxiety, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and migraines – in people who lived within half a mile of green space.

The RHS’ own research and practical programmes support these findings. In fact, four in five teachers who  signed up to the RHS Campaign for School Gardening reported that gardening has had a significant positive impact on pupil health and wellbeing.

The benefits of gardening has led to an increasing number of GPs prescribing gardening not only for rehabilitation but also as a preventative mechanism. In Lambeth, London, 13 GPs have opened community gardens with positive effect.

In 2017, the RHS teamed up with the NHS to promote the role that gardens can play for good mental health and wellbeing. In 2018 and 2019, we donated gardens from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show to Highgate Mental Health Centre and to Dewnans Centre in Devon. We will be working together over the coming years to assess whether access to the garden supports the therapeutic process and reduces length of stay for patients. Existing studies have found that patients with rooms overlooking nature recover faster(9) than those who face buildings.

How we interact with our gardens, and what it is about them that makes us tick, is the subject of an ongoing RHS and Sheffield University study. We measured perceived stress and cortisol levels of an area’s residents before and after their gardens were ‘greened’. We hope to be able to add to the growing evidence base for gardening and health and make recommendations for maximising the health benefits of gardens.
 

Eat your greens! Healthy eating and plant-based foods

Research by the American Heart Association has shown that diets higher in plant foods and lower in animal foods may be linked to a lower risk of dying of a heart attack, stroke, or other cardiovascular disease, notably a 32% lower risk of  cardiovascular disease(10)

In terms of weight management and the UK’s obesity problems, the NHS cites fruit and veg as being important for maintaining a healthy weight. Yet in 2017 a study found that less than a third of adults ate their five-a day. 

Growing your own really is worthwhile: you’ll have plenty of fruit and veg on tap. Finding ways to use them up does dietary wonders, and you can pick as much as you need, when you need it. It’s also worth noting that an important by-product of the ‘grow your own’ phenomenon is a reduction in plastic packaging and food waste.

The RHS has seen an increase in the number of community gardening groups (Britain in Bloom, It's Your Neighbourhood) helping to address healthy eating in their areas. Actions include growing fruit and vegetables in community orchards and allotments, providing and stocking community fridges and supplementing charity food parcels with fresh produce.

These life-affirming actions are changing the lives of thousands of people up and down the country – daily proof that gardens and gardening benefit the mind, body and spirit. There’s never been a better time to pick up that trowel and get growing.  
 
 

References:

(1) Kings Fund Gardens and health (pdf)
(2) NHS Long Term Plan
(3) Green space and health report 
(4) Calories used in 30-minutes of activity
(5) The King’s Fund report by David Buck (2016)
(6) University of Tokyo findings 
(7) Green space and mental health - Defra - World Health Organisation - Natural England
(8) University of Exeter Medical School research
(9) Science magazine: 'View through a window may influence recovery from surgery'
(10) Medical news today article

Get involved

The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.