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The Fountain of Youth in a Patch of Dirt: Let Nature Nurture You

gardener planting flowers in garden bedI have a confession to make. All my life I’ve had a penchant to develop long-term relationships with plants. As a young teen, I began working summers in a nursery up in Grafton, North Dakota, and would plant trees and shrubs around town. As I was growing up, my trees were too, and I took pride in seeing them thrive. When we moved to KC, a friend gave us a small ficus tree as a housewarming gift. Every fall I drag this tree in from the patio, and we pick up its leaves off the floor all winter. Then in spring, I drag it back outside again and nurse it back to health. Now it’s 35 years old, 15 feet high, and weighs north of  50 pounds - it’s like delivering a very large baby twice a year as I pull it through the sliding glass doors. We also have two shamrock plants that come in and out with the focus. These were gifts from two different patients/friends, both of whom have been gone for many years. When I water these lush shamrocks - one with pink flowers and the other white - I always fondly remember my beloved friends. Around the yard, we have innumerable hostas that I transported here after splitting them off from hostas that still grow in the yard of my childhood home, and others from hostas that grew in my grandparents’ yard.
Gardening/yard work is a hobby that cultivates well-being in plants and people. Dan Buettner has studied five cultures across the globe where residents are famous for their longevity: Sardinia, Okinawa, Costa Rica, Icaria, and Loma Linda. These so-called Blue Zones share specific factors in common - good social support networks, a physically active outdoor lifestyle, and lots of whole natural foods in their diet. Yet, they also share another surprising commonality - their residents traditionally have gardened throughout life, often into their 80s, 90s, and beyond.
Gardening Therapy
A host of studies have reported that gardening and yardwork confer both physical and mental health benefits. Tending to a yard and/or garden is an enjoyable hobby that will naturally get you more outdoor physical activity, which has been linked to improved wellbeing and life expectancy. There is abundant scientific evidence that gardeners on average tend to live longer and be less stressed.
Digging in the soil and getting your hands dirty bolsters your microbiome— the trillions of friendly microbes that reside on and inside you. Sunlight stimulates the exposed skin to produce vitamin D, which is a key nutrient for strengthening bones and the immune system. Being out in bright daylight also helps to synchronize your body’s internal clock, and that improves the quality of your sleep at night. Sunshine boosts your brain’s levels of serotonin - a neurotransmitter that brightens mood gives you more energy, and keeps you calm, focused, and optimistic. Exposing skin to sunlight also reduces blood pressure and dilates arteries by increasing the production of nitric oxide in the blood vessels, which in turn cuts risks of heart attack and stroke.
A recent study from Holland required participants to do a stress-inducing task that made them feel harassed. Immediately afterward they were randomly assigned to either read indoors for a half-hour or garden outdoors for 30 minutes. The group that read reported no improvement in their agitated mood, while those assigned to gardening not only reduced their levels of the stress hormone cortisol, they also noted improvement in their mood.
An Australian study of people in their 60s reported that the men and women who gardened regularly had a 36% reduced risk of developing dementia compared to a matched group of people who didn’t garden. There is no cure-all to prevent aging, but for many people, gardening seems to improve both the quality and quantity of life as the decades roll by.
May The Forest Be with You
A feeling of being emotionally connected to other people is important for well-being, but so too is one’s connection to nature. A study from Harvard University study found that people who lived in a house surrounded by verdant greenery had better life expectancy and reduced risks for developing respiratory illnesses and cancer.
Doctors in Shetland, Scotland, routinely prescribe physical activity out in nature to reduce blood pressure and anxiety and improve wellbeing for people with conditions such as diabetes, mental illness, stress, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Planting a garden and trees, even on a small yard in an urban setting, is an easy and enjoyable way to integrate some outdoor nature time into your daily life.
The practice of consuming an abundance of fresh vegetables, ideally from local gardens and markets, is central to longevity. Even so, vegetables and fruit that you grow yourself will make you healthier even if the produce never makes it to your own table. The famously therapeutic Mediterranean diet—the traditional eating style of peasants from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea—is rich in home-grown vegetables, fruits, nuts, olives, and grapes, from which they make olive oil and red wine.
If you are outside for more than 15 or 20 minutes apply sunscreen to your exposed skin. However, modest doses of ultraviolet light from the sun may improve some skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis. I personally take advantage of the mood-brightening effects of some fresh air and sunshine by getting outside for at least two walks daily.
A balanced life, like a chair, is stabilized by four legs: social connection, wholesome diet, physical activity, and mental engagement. A person needs to invest energy into all four of these fundamental factors to stay in optimal balance with their health and wellbeing. Gardening is a simple and enjoyable habit to cultivate that can contribute to all four of these pillars of health.
In Good Health,
James O'Keefe, MD, FACC