It’s National Nutrition Month, which makes it a great time to evaluate how you’ve been fueling your body. If one of the changes you’ve decided to make involves eating more fruits and vegetables, you might want to consider starting your own garden. Not only could this decision be beneficial to your waistline, it could also improve your mental health.
We’re fascinated by nature and this curiosity can help us better cope with life’s challenges. In fact, one study showed that engaging with a garden distracts us from our worries and stops us from obsessing about our problems. Over 12 weeks, participants saw an improvement in the severity of their depression during and immediately after the gardening study, and three months later, they still reported significant improvements!
Cortisol is a hormone released by the body when we’re experiencing stress. When the levels remain elevated in our bodies, it can increase our risk of depression, mental illness, impaired immune function, weight gain, heart disease and so much more. Incredibly, spending time in nature can help keep things under control.
Japanese researchers discovered that spending 30 minutes in the woods could not only lower cortisol levels, but could also improve heart rates and blood pressure. Similarly, another study showed that after 30 minutes of gardening, participants’ cortisol levels dropped and their moods were boosted by the activity.
The takeaway? Spending just half an hour with your hands in the soil, surrounded by vegetation, can provide serious benefits for your body, mind and overall health. Interested? Here are some tips to help you get started.
Keep it Simple
If you’ve never gardened before, you might feel overwhelmed by the prospect of starting a new hobby. The key is to start small and keep it simple. You don’t have to tear up your whole backyard and plant a farm — be realistic about the time and effort you’re willing to put into it. The last thing you want is to be stressed out about your stress-relieving garden!
While it’s great to listen to suggestions and advice from experienced “green thumbs,” this garden is all about you. No, you don’t need a specific type of shoes or apron to do this. Yes, starting with a few potted plants on your porch counts. Gardening is an escape and a hobby, so as soon as it starts feeling like a chore, simplify!
Unplug and Dig In
When you step out to your garden, leave the world behind. Thirty minutes from now, everything will be right where you left it. You’ll devote more than enough hours to texting, emails and social media throughout the rest of your day. When it’s time to weed, plant and till, allow yourself to slow down and disconnect.
Interestingly, studies have shown that multitasking decreases efficiency and that excessive mobile phone use can disrupt sleep and actually increase feelings of stress and depression. Besides, you don’t want to get soil and grime in the grooves of your smartphone, right? Easy solution — leave it inside!
Ready to take your gardening efforts to the next level? There’s nothing wrong with keeping things small, but this is an opportunity to get creative. Use your imagination when choosing plants and a color palette and let it be a reflection of what you love to see.
For those seeking a little guidance, Dr. Leonard P. Perry at the University of Vermont Extension Department of Plant and Soil Science described some of the traits associated with gardens designed for serenity. As he explained, stress-reducing gardens “are often similar to any other woodland or flower garden, only emphasizing certain design principles and colors.”
Live in the Moment
There’s so much to see and do in a garden. Rather than dwelling on the challenges you’re facing or the lengthy to-do list waiting for you, give yourself permission to live in the moment. Notice the birds chirping, the gentle breeze and aromatic scent of soil and vegetation.
Practice mindfulness, a stress-relieving technique, by becoming fully captivated with what’s happening in your garden. Notice the ants scurrying to find shelter, note the color of the blossoms and contemplate the texture of the earth on your fingers. Be fascinated by all of the life that’s happening right before your eyes. It’s life-changing.
Get Down and Dirty!
This spring, for both your mental and physical health, consider planting a garden. As an added benefit, if you grow fruits and vegetables, you’ll have fresh produce to enjoy! No salad will taste better than the one grown by your own hands.
Even if you’ve never had a green thumb, give it a try and see what happens. Set aside 30 minutes, start small and see what happens. You might be surprised by how much you enjoy it!
Jeanne is a social sciences professor and writer.