Beyond the physical benefits, there are a number of mental perks associated with gardening and working with plants, too. For starters, since gardening usually requires some time under the sun, Altman reminds us that it can increase your vitamin D intake. Vitamin D not only serves as a mood booster, but it's also an important nutrient for every single organ system including our bones, brain, heart, kidneys, and immune system.
He also notes that surrounding yourself with plants "creates a sanctuary for us to feel safe and calm," leading to feelings of relaxation and comfort. One 2010 study revealed that 30 minutes of gardening decreased more stress than 30 minutes of indoor reading. Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacterium in soil, has even been found to trigger the release of serotonin, which, in turn, improves mood and decreases anxiety.
Community gardens, in particular, can help decrease feelings of isolation and boost self-esteem as they enable people to get together socially and be a part of a project. (If you're interested in finding out where your nearest community garden is, check out the locator tool on the American Community Gardening Association's website.)
The act of gardening, whether on a small scale or a larger one, requires a multistep thinking process. As a result, as Amy Wagenfeld, Ph.D., OTR/L, SCEM, FAOTA, associate professor in the occupational therapy doctorate program at Johnson & Wales University, points out, studies have shown that the activity can help to improve cognitive function, including the ability to concentrate.
It has also been reported that the benefits of gardening projects can delay the symptoms of dementia. George Papanicolaou, D.O., functional medicine doctor at Mark Hyman’s UltraWellness Center, references one study in particular, which followed nearly 3,000 older adults for 16 years, tracking incidents of all kinds of dementia and assessing a variety of lifestyle factors. He notes that the researchers found daily gardening to represent the single biggest risk reduction for dementia, reducing incidence by 36%.
Papanicolaou adds that young minds can reap huge benefits as well. "School-based gardens are popping up all over the place, and there is good reason why—studies have found that gardening resulted in improvement in learning and a significant increase in achievement test scoring," he says.
The next time you're feeling lethargic, overwhelmed, or just in need of a quick sweat fix, try getting a little dirt under those nails, and see what happens.