Gardens, Plants & Nature: Proven Well-being Remedy for Mind, Body & Soul
“A reconnection to the natural world is fundamental to human health, well-being, spirit, and survival.” ― Richard Louv
Don’t let the malls, all the concrete and the ubiquitous screens fool you. We are designed deep down for connection to the natural world. Since we’ve been on the planet, humans have used plants for food, medicine and shelter. But the healing properties go well beyond ingestion.
Research has found that the simple interaction between person and plant - both access to greenspace and through gardening - is a key to mental and physical well-being.
The health of communities and the people they serve have been directly tied to the availability of natural and outdoor environments. Studies show that gardens, parks and farmers markets play a vital role in wellness.
A comprehensive review of studies (Soga et al.) explored the broad positive impact that exposure to plants and gardening has on our overall health. Access to greenspace and plants has been found to be so beneficial, that it’s been heralded - by both social scientists and medical professionals alike - as something close to a cure-all.
We may be stuck inside for a while but a garden is what you make it. For some, it’s a garden box of vegetables or a hillside of wildflowers; for others, a small planter box or a motley crew of small plants in a windowsill.
Whether inside or out: the power of the plant can be especially helpful these days.
Medicine for a pandemic
“We may think we are nurturing our garden, but of course it’s our garden that is really nurturing us.” — Jenny Uglow
Whether walking in a forest or potting a plant, the interaction and relationship with nature helps reduce psychological stress and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Nature helps to slow us down, and to breathe through difficult times. Natural settings can help us deal with unpredictability and support our peace of mind and acceptance of things we have little control over.
Connecting with nature has shown to improve mood and increase levels of optimism for the future. It also promotes a growth-mindset and fuels our perseverance. All helpful things in the midst of a pandemic and an uncertain future ahead.
“Time in nature is not leisure time; it's an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own).” ― Richard Louv
Tending to a garden can be especially valuable for kids who might be spending even more time on screens these days while at home.
Time in natural spaces helps heal technology’s damage
Research shows that all the screen time, coupled with an increasing lack of time spent in nature is really doing a number on the attention span, ability to focus and brain health for young and no-longer-young alike.
“Electronic immersion, without a force to balance it, creates the hole in the boat - draining our ability to pay attention, to think clearly, to be productive and creative.” ― Richard Louv
Richard Louv coined the term ‘nature-deficit disorder’ in his book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. In it, Louv asserts how lack of access to nature has contributed to behavioral issues and health problems in children.
Close to a thousand studies over the past 15 years have more than backed him up. Research shows that the growing lack of contact with the natural world is responsible for growing attention-span issues, increased rates of obesity and emotional disorders. It’s even linked to a decreased use of our senses.
Human devolution, right in front of our eyes.
Our brain thrives in natural surroundings
In the U.S., an estimated 6.1 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD, according to the CDC.
Natural spaces have been shown to help with concentration for kids with these disorders, including significantly reducing the symptoms of ADHD and aiding concentration that helps in learning.
For tech-addicted adults, gardening and greenspace also strengthen our ability to focus. They improve our creative-thinking and problem-solving abilities. In fact, time in the garden and in nature feeds healthy brain functioning throughout our lifetime, including being associated with lower rates of dementia later on.
Time spent in a garden benefits our bodies as well as our minds.
Physical health benefits
It’s no surprise that the majority of Americans aren’t eating their fair share of fruits and veggies. The CDC’s State Indicator Report on Fruits and Vegetables (2018) show that only 12% of American adults are getting their daily recommended fruit intake and less than 10%, of suggested vegetables.
Kids are eating even less.
For children, exposure to fresh foods grown in their own or a community garden, can establish a pattern of nutritious eating and the rewards of a healthy body that comes along with it.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg lettuce:
Gardening has shown to help lower our blood pressure as well as our body mass. It reduces the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease – aka those perilous ‘underlying conditions,’ sadly exacerbating the devastating toll of coronavirus.
The benefits of the garden begin even before the bounty.
Working even a small plot of space can be a workout. Studies at Harvard Medical School examined how 30 minutes of gardening activities can burn 135 calories for a 125-lb. individual. Gardening also helps develop strength and motor skills.
Beyond the physical, the psychological advantages of time in the garden help undo the damage of an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and the hours of life devoured by screens.
“Going out into nature was one outlet that I had, which truly allowed me to calm down and not think or worry.” ― Richard Louv
The act of nurturing a garden or tending to a few plants can help build or renew our sense of self-worth. Our efforts and time in nature feeds self-assurance and grows our confidence. We discover a place that’s available always as a refuge from the noise and opinions and speed of life.
Outside, unplugged and free of the bombardment: of social media, social pressure or even people period, time in nature helps with perspective. We are in fact, not the center of the universe, but instead just a tiny, temporary piece of something much, much larger.
With a connection like that available, especially right out our own backdoor, who the hell cares what Missy T. posted to Missy R’s SnapGram feed.
Psychological well-being in 2 hours a week
Research conducted by White et al. (2019) showed that spending as little as two hours a week in natural settings helps boost both our physical health and mental well-being.
The positive impact of time in nature was found across people young and old; men and women; rich and poor; well or sick; urban or rural. The study also interestingly revealed that less than 2 hours of nature week is the same as no nature at all. Spending too little time can be literally and figuratively, fruitless.
Gardening and time spent in natural surroundings is associated with better reported life satisfaction and quality, as well as increased kindness and generosity.
“The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature. To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul.” — Alfred Austin
Natural surroundings enlist the senses and helps us be in the moment. Taking time to be present has been linked to less emotional reactivity and more satisfying relationships.
Let’s face it: before this pandemic forced a hard-stop, many of us were moving through life a little too fast for our own good, never mind for the good of those we love.
During safer-at-home directives, being stuck inside maybe be frustrating. For the indoor plants working the detox and rehab circuit, they’re working harder now than ever.
The indoorsy type
Just because some plants like to hang out indoors, does not make their plant-ness any less potent. Indoor plants serve as an important filter that helps keep us healthy, especially during a quarantine.
When we think of air pollution we generally think of outdoors, but researchers have identified over 300 toxins in indoor air that the leaves of indoor plants help remove. Indoor plants can also remove as much as 20% of the dust, microorganisms and other particulate matter from the air. They help reduce eye, nose and airway irritation by adding humidity.
Beyond the air, Nieuwenhuis et al. (2014) found the plants in workspaces increased concentration and raised productivity levels by as much as 15%. That’s got to at least make a dent in output lost to social media use.
Regardless of your own productivity level, that Philodendron in the corner is working overtime.
Underappreciated Frontline Worker
Indoor plants go beyond cleaning air and encouraging work output. They work in hospitals and other places of recovery and research shows that plants can be a powerful part of the healing process.
Park and Mattson (2009) found that plants and flowers helped lower blood pressure, anxiety and fatigue in patients recuperating from surgery. They’ve been found to help with pain tolerance. Other studies show that looking out at a scene of greenspace improves recovery.
Future of medical care?
Considering the rising costs of global healthcare today, “Green therapy” is being increasingly accepted as a cost-effective and powerful early intervention for a whole host of psychological and other health issues.
Especially in the U.K., medical professionals are looking to take advantage of the extensive proven benefits of time spent in natural surroundings in place of expensive traditional remedies. Gardening is way cheaper and often more effective than prescribed medications.
The Royal College of Physicians in London are encouraging doctors to prescribe gardening and exposure to green space for patients in order to take some pressure off their National Health Service (NHS). It’s estimated that up to 87% of the U.K.’s population have access to a home garden, but even for those who do not, community therapeutic gardens are available.
Over 300 patients were referred to Sydenham Garden, a community plot in London in 2017-18. A standard referral runs 6 months to a year. Green therapy makes sense, especially in a country where over 40% of the population still passionately engages in the garden.
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” — Audrey Hepburn
My grandmother was one of those English gardeners. My father brought that legacy across the pond and transplanted it in a California backyard.
Unlike my father’s beautiful roses and prolific tomato plants, I like my plants like I like my kid: hearty, independent and having the ability to withstand the lean times.
That’s why I love a succulent.
Whatever the choice, nurturing these plants remind us that things take time, that not everything will go as planned and most importantly, that no matter the circumstances, there is something good and beautiful that can come out of all this.
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.” ― John Burroughs
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