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Gardening: Why Getting Down and Dirty Feels So Good

It's a great source of exercise, not to mention nutrition, experts say

Please note: This article was published more than one year ago. The facts and conclusions presented may have since changed and may no longer be accurate. And "More information" links may no longer work. Questions about personal health should always be referred to a physician or other health care professional.

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By Anne Thompson
HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, May 5, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- You may not be able to tear your boss' hair out -- but you can snatch the weeds from your flowerbeds.

You may not have the desire to schlep to your gym's power-lift class -- but you can lug bags of soil and push your wheelbarrow around.

You may not be able to dictate what your office looks like, but you can have flowers and trees in your yard that directly reflect your personality.

And then there's the control -- all those little plant lives are in your hands.

With warmer weather here, more people are charging into their yards and gardens, or maybe thinking about it.

And health experts couldn't be happier.

There are oodles of benefits -- both physical and mental -- that come from the range of activities associated with gardening.

The most obvious benefit is exercise, said Dr. Julie Roth of the Wellness Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. And anyone who has planted trees, created a flowerbed from bare lawn or hauled slate to design a walking path will tell you that dominating Mother Nature is hard work.

"It's going to give you a good way to burn calories that's an enjoyable activity for most people," Roth said, adding that studies show that working in your yard or garden can burn between 250 calories and 500 calories an hour, depending on your level of activity.

Diane Relf, a professor emeritus with Virginia Tech's Department of Horticulture, said trimming shrubs or trees requires about the same amount of exertion as walking at a moderate pace. Raking the lawn takes as much energy as a leisurely bike ride or water aerobics. And mowing the lawn with a push mower or tilling a garden can equal the exertion you would expend swimming laps, she said.

"Gardening is moderate -- and sometimes strenuous -- exercise that incorporates many important elements of accepted exercise regimes, such as stretching and stance, repetition and movement," Relf said. "Some gardening even involves resistance principles similar to weight training."

And while some people just can't bring themselves to climb on a treadmill for an hour, it might help to know that when you "feel the burn" in your garden, you've actually produced something in the end -- besides a toned backside.

Beyond physical exertion, gardening also offers a level of serenity that can help a person's mental health, experts said.

"For a lot of people, it's a very soothing activity," Roth said. "You're out in nature, which is a very soothing location. You can turn on whatever music you want. It's a good way to break away from the daily rigor we all go through."

Relf said just spending time in your garden can provide health benefits.

She noted a study from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City that found that women recovering from breast-cancer surgery discovered that walks in the garden helped restore their ability to concentrate and reduce their depression.

"After a hard, tense day at the office, a slow cruise around the yard will do wonders to restore your perspective," Relf said. "As you discover seedlings emerging, flower buds opening, even the damage of the tomato hornworm, you forget about the day's worries."

And don't underestimate the stress relief that comes from spending time outdoors after driving your desk in an office all day.

There are several theories why time spent gardening is so soothing, Relf said.

It might be that plants provide a simple aesthetic joy, or that people are responding to ingrained psychological and physical cues borne of thousands of years of evolution. It also may be that caring for plants satisfies the human instinct to nurture and provide support, rewarding good gardeners with colorful and fragrant flowers or luscious, ripe fruits and vegetables.

Which leads to the last reason why gardening is such a health activity -- when it's all said and done, you benefit from a diet of fresh fruits and vegetables.

"It gives you direct access to healthy food," Roth said. "Whatever you put in there, one way or another, it's going to be good for you."

More information

For more on the health benefits of gardening, visit the University of Illinois.

SOURCES: Diane Relf, Ph.D., professor emeritus, Department of Horticulture, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; Julie Roth, M.D., Wellness Institute, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, Chicago

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