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Gardening boosts mood as much as some types of exercise, study finds

Spokane County Master Gardener Marilyn Lloyd grows a wide variety of vegetables in containers to expand her garden space. A recent study found that gardening boosts mood. (Susan Mulvihill / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Master Gardener Marilyn Lloyd grows a wide variety of vegetables in containers to expand her garden space. A recent study found that gardening boosts mood. (Susan Mulvihill / The Spokesman-Review)
By Christopher Ingraham Washington Post

In recent weeks, public health experts have warned that the coronavirus pandemic could have a devastating effect on mental health.

From a mental health standpoint, strict lockdown rules mean that many of the activities we derive joy and purpose from – socializing with friends, exercise, attending church – are difficult or downright impossible to do. But a new study published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning finds there’s one surprisingly mood-boosting activity we can do even if we’re locked up alone at home: tending to a small garden.

The study shows that gardening boosts people’s moods by as much as some common types of exercise such as cycling and walking. That boost is available whether it is done alone or with others, on a city balcony or in a suburban lawn, and it seems to be particularly strong for women and low-income people. While all types of gardening were shown to be beneficial to mental health, people who grow their own food seem to take particular joy in tending to their plants.

For the study, 370 adults in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area were given a mobile app that recorded their activity during a random one-week period in 2016 and 2017. The app asked every study subject to log the intensity, on a scale of 1 to 7, of emotions experienced during activities in which they participated. The participants tracked two positive emotions (happiness and meaningfulness) and four negative ones (pain, sadness, fatigue and stress).

About 30% of the participants said they gardened, spending an average of 1.5 hours a week at it. The researchers conducted a measure of net well-being by subtracting the average recorded intensity of negative emotion experienced during an activity from the average intensity of positive emotions. Then they compared this net well-being measure across various activities.

Gardening was near the top of the activity list in terms of net well-being, statistically indistinguishable from walking, biking or eating a meal at a restaurant. The only activity scoring significantly higher than gardening, in fact, was “other leisure” – a catchall category that could include anything from watching a movie to socializing with friends.

The study found that while all types of gardening are good for your mental health, people who grow their own vegetables seem to be especially pleased with their efforts relative to those who grow flowers or decorative plants.

Gardening is a composite of various activities that other research has shown to be beneficial. Being outside, for instance, is associated with happiness. Ditto for even small amounts of physical activity. Eating well is associated with better mental health, as is simply having plants around. Gardening is an amalgamation of all those things.

“Many more people garden than we think, and it appears that it associates with higher levels of happiness similar to walking and biking,” said Princeton’s Anu Ramaswami, one of the authors, in a statement. “In the movement to make cities more livable, gardening might be a big part of improving quality of life.”

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