Doctor’s orders: get out in the garden to save your health

Dr David Agus is well known in the United States, having treated Steve Jobs, Ted Kennedy and Neil Young. In his new book, A Short Guide to a Long Life, the oncologist encapsulates his philosophy that “listening to your body allows you to take charge”.

The book contains 65 simple things, which we can all do, that have been scientifically proven to increase your lifespan. I recently spoke to Dr Agus, who explained to me that “gardening is a very powerful way to fulfil many of the list”. I have cherry-picked 20 of his recommendations here.

1 Eat real food and don’t let the apple fall far from the tree. Growing your own or buying from local sources is important (and more tasty) because the minute the fruit or veg is picked it starts to change chemically and lose nutritional value.

2 Grow a garden. This, Dr Agus stresses, “should be mandatory for anyone with children”. It teaches you origin and seasonality. More importantly, it connects you with the land, gets you outside and encourages you to exercise and relax.

3 Maintain a dietary protocol that works for you. The modern processed-food culture contains many foods that have a 50:50 combination of fat and sugar (for example, ice cream, milk chocolate). This gives us a rush of dopamine, making it hard to resist eating more. Growing your own can give you a wide range of magical flavours, textures and freshness and your palate seems to become repelled by processed foods. His advice is to leave the table a tiny bit hungry. If you do need to snack, Dr Agus suggests you make the snack from scratch using real ingredients and have it at a daily regular snack time using portion control. My time is around noon, when I wander out for handfuls of parsley, salad burnet, the odd apple or tomato – depending on the time of year.

4 Maintain a healthy weight. Apparently a pound of weight lost equals a 4lb reduction in the load on your knees for every step you take. Hip joints suffer similarly. Use gardening in your weight-reduction plan; it is fabulous exercise. Three hours’ moderate gardening consumes the same calories as one full-on hour in the gym.

5 Get off your butt more. Prolonged time spent sitting, independent of how much other physical activity is done during the day, has been shown to have significant metabolic consequences, negatively affecting blood fats, blood pressure, appetite hormones and more. So get up regularly and stroll around your borders, pluck out the odd weed or mist cuttings.

6 Jack up your heart rate (50 per cent above your resting baseline) for 15 minutes a day. Turn your compost heap, axe some logs, dig out that old stump and turn the drive mechanism off your walk-behind mower and run with it!

7 Start a sensible caffeine habit. (It can also help you garden faster.) Caffeine, especially from traditional sources, may have protective anti-cancer properties. Get a Thermos cup and enjoy fresh coffee while tilling the soil.

8 Plan a one, five, 10 and 20-year health strategy. Dr Agus’s own plan includes “living into my ninth decade and to feel well, too”. He enjoys yoga and tennis. Part of my strategy is to maintain reasonable fitness and energy levels to match those of my father, who played squash and much more well into his eighties and had large reserves of energy.

9 Deal with sickness smartly. Vitamin supplements are frowned on by Dr Agus but if you feel a cold coming he recommends zinc lozenges (zinc acetate, 75mg a day), not chewed but sucked so they can be absorbed by your oral blood vessels, together with warm herbal teas with honey. Grow a wide range of herbs and make tasty infusions.

10 Pursue your passions. For many, gardening is perfect. It gets you hooked. It fulfils both your artistic and your physical sides, yet is productive. It also involves an appreciation of science and nature and the benefits of careful thought and consideration.

11 Strengthen your core and look after your posture.

12 Don’t forget your feet. Bunions and other podiatric torments can make walking difficult. I love gardening in my neoprene-lined wellies (Le Chameau, Country Neo Lady, £125, lechameau.com). Comfortable but not sweaty.

13 Find out what exercise or activity you’re bad at and focus on it. Apparently, new challenges can make us mentally sharper and physically fitter. So time for me to take up grafting, laying paving and computer-aided design (again).

14 Stretch. Do this daily when you have warmed your muscles after gardening. Your improvement in coordination, balance and general suppleness will take years off you.

15 Ask for help. Knowing your limitations in any field is important. In horticulture almost everybody is happy to help – it could change your life. You learn, find new friends and help others too.

16 Pick up a pooch. Or two, I would say. Dr Agus cites many reasons for this, (including developing routines and relieving stress) but my Jack Russells additionally control the rabbits and are great company when gardening.

17 Avoid risky behaviours and dangerous sports. Climbing unsafe ladders, using hedge cutters when not paying attention, mowers on steep banks. Take care and don’t get blasé.

18 Sunburn. A wide-brimmed hat and sunblock are important, even when it looks dull, to prevent overexposure to harmful rays while sowing the radishes.

19 Avoid insomnia. There has been an explosion in the sleep-aid industry. A regular great night’s sleep often makes many things seem better. Getting physically tired, happy, relaxed and satisfied from a good day’s gardening is my top cure for this.

20 Absence of downtime. No garden lets you fall prey to this one; it compels you to enjoy and tend it, and as I may have said before, it is one of the best ways to relax.

Why gardening is good for your health

Gillian Aldrich started growing vegetables in her backyard three years ago, and she’s now working on planting a bed of hydrangeas, butterfly bushes, rose campion, and — her favorite — pale-pink hardy geraniums along one side of her property.

As she digs in the garden, her 8-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son often play around her, sometimes taking a break to dig for worms or pick strawberries.

Instead of watching them, Aldrich is playing, too — “my kind of play,” she says.

“When you sit at a desk all day, there’s something about literally putting your hands in the dirt, digging and actually creating something that’s really beautiful,” says Aldrich, 42, a magazine editor in Maplewood, New Jersey. “There’s something about just being out there that feels kind of elemental.”

Aldrich isn’t the only one who feels this way. Many gardeners view their hobby as the perfect antidote to the modern world, a way of reclaiming some of the intangible things we’ve lost in our busy, dirt-free lives.

The sensory experience of gardening “allows people to connect to this primal state,” says James Jiler, the founder and executive director of Urban GreenWorks, a Miami-based nonprofit that creates garden and park programs for low-income neighborhoods.

“A lot of people [understand] that experience. They may not be able to put it into words, but they understand what’s happening.”

Working in the garden has other, less spiritual rewards. In addition to being a source of fresh, healthy produce, gardening can ease stress, keep you limber, and even improve your mood.

Here are just a few of the ways gardening can benefit your physical and mental health, and how you can start harvesting those benefits for you and your family.

Stress relief

A recent study in the Netherlands suggests that gardening can fight stress even better than other relaxing leisure activities.

After completing a stressful task, two groups of people were instructed to either read indoors or garden for 30 minutes. Afterward, the group that gardened reported being in a better mood than the reading group, and they also had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

“We live in a society where we’re just maxing ourselves out all the time in terms of paying attention,” says Andrea Faber Taylor, Ph.D., a horticulture instructor and researcher in the Landscape and Human Health Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Humans have a finite capacity for the kind of directed attention required by cell phones and email and the like, Taylor says, and when that capacity gets used up we tend to become irritable, error-prone, distractible, and stressed out.

Fortunately this “attention fatigue” appears to be reversible. Following a theory first suggested by University of Michigan researchers in the 1980s, Taylor and other experts have argued that we can replenish ourselves by engaging in “involuntary attention,” an effortless form of attention that we use to enjoy nature.

Trading your BlackBerry for blackberry bushes is an excellent way to fight stress and attention fatigue, Taylor says, as the rhythms of the natural environment and the repetitive, soothing nature of many gardening tasks are all sources of effortless attention.

“The breeze blows, things get dew on them, things flower; the sounds, the smells,” says Taylor, herself a home gardener. “All of these draw on that form of attention.”

Better mental health

The effortless attention of gardening may even help improve depression symptoms.

In a study conducted in Norway, people who had been diagnosed with depression, persistent low mood, or “bipolar II disorder” spent six hours a week growing flowers and vegetables.

After three months, half of the participants had experienced a measurable improvement in their depression symptoms. What’s more, their mood continued to be better three months after the gardening program ended. The researchers suggest that the novelty of gardening may have been enough to jolt some of the participants out of their doldrums, but some experts have a much more radical explanation for how gardening might ease depression.

Christopher Lowry, Ph.D., an assistant professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, has been injecting mice with Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless bacteria commonly found in soil, and has found that they increase the release and metabolism of serotonin in parts of the brain that control cognitive function and mood — much like serotonin-boosting antidepressant drugs do.

Digging in the dirt isn’t the same as taking Prozac, of course, but Lowry argues that because humans evolved along with M. vaccae and a host of other friendly bugs, the relative lack of these “old friends” in our current environment has thrown our immune systems out of whack.

This can lead to inflammation, which is implicated in a host of modern ills, from heart disease to diabetes to depression.

“By reintroducing these bacteria in the environment, that may help to alleviate some of these problems,” Lowry says.

Exercise

Gardening gets you out in the fresh air and sunshine — and it also gets your blood moving.

“There are lots of different movements in gardening, so you get some exercise benefits out of it as well,” says William Maynard, the community garden program coordinator for the City of Sacramento’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

Gardening is hardly pumping iron, and unless you’re hauling wheelbarrows of dirt long distances every day, it probably won’t do much for your cardiovascular fitness.

But digging, planting, weeding, and other repetitive tasks that require strength or stretching are excellent forms of low-impact exercise, especially for people who find more vigorous exercise a challenge, such as those who are older, have disabilities, or suffer from chronic pain.

As a pleasurable and goal-oriented outdoor activity, gardening has another advantage over other forms of exercise: People are more likely to stick with it and do it often.

“It’s not just exercise for exercise itself, which can become tedious,” says Katherine Brown, the executive director of the Southside Community Land Trust, a nonprofit that supports community gardens and other urban agriculture in and around Providence, R.I. “It’s exercise that has a context, that reinforces the limberness of your limbs and the use of your hands. You’ve got a motivation for why you want to grip. You’re not just gripping a ball, you want to pull a weed.”

Brain health

Some research suggests that the physical activity associated with gardening can help lower the risk of developing dementia.

Two separate studies that followed people in their 60s and 70s for up to 16 years found, respectively, that those who gardened regularly had a 36% and 47% lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners, even when a range of other health factors were taken into account.

These findings are hardly definitive, but they suggest that the combination of physical and mental activity involved in gardening may have a positive influence on the mind.

And for people who are already experiencing mental decline, even just walking in a garden may be therapeutic. Many residential homes for people with dementia now have “wander” or “memory” gardens on their grounds, so that residents with Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive problems can walk through them without getting lost.

The sights, smells, and sounds of the garden are said to promote relaxation and reduce stress.

Nutrition

The food you grow yourself is the freshest food you can eat. And because home gardens are filled with fruits and vegetables, it’s also among the healthiest food you can eat.

Not surprisingly, several studies have shown that gardeners eat more fruits and vegetables than their peers.

“People who are growing food tend to eat healthy,” says Brown. “The work that we do here with kids demonstrates it on a daily basis, throughout the seasons.”

Studies of after-school gardening programs suggest that kids who garden are more likely to eat fruits and vegetables. And they’re a lot more adventurous about giving new foods a try, says Anne Palmer, who studies food environments as the program director of Eating for the Future, a program based at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Center for a Livable Future, in Baltimore.

“I’ve watched a lot of cooking and gardening classes with kids,” Palmer says. “It’s amazing how many of them will try things like radicchio or some kind of unusual green that has a pretty strong flavor, like arugula, and they’ll say, ‘Wow, this is good.'”

Not to mention that homegrown produce simply tastes better.

“It’s incomparably more delicious to eat something that’s fresh,” Brown says.

How to get started

You don’t need a big backyard or a green thumb to benefit from gardening. If you have very little space or experience, you can start out with just a few houseplants, or you could even try gardening in containers.

“You can grow a wonderful crop of cherry tomatoes in nothing more than a five-gallon bucket that you’ve cleaned really well and put holes in the bottom of,” Brown says.

For novices who want to learn the basics of gardening, a huge — and somewhat overwhelming — variety of information is available on the Web and in bookstores. But one of the best ways to get started is to meet some other gardeners, who can be found in local garden clubs and community gardens in just about any town or city.

For some great gardening tips, just start up a conversation with one of the gardeners next time you are passing by a community garden.

“Most will love to share their gardening savvy,” Brown says. “That’s a really nice way to start.”

gardening is healthy

And now it has been proven scientifically. Researchers have found that smelling roses and pulling up weeds can lower blood pressure, increase brain activity and produce a general upbeat feeling.

Even just looking at a garden can give you a positive boost. The evidence is so compelling that the health factor has been given its own name – horticultural therapy – and is being used to treat hospital patients, plan cities and even to calm prisoners in jails.

Horticultural therapists say gardens produce the most positive effects on mental health.

They do this by providing a sense of control – the psychological counter to stress and anxiety. Gardens are also beneficial for stroke patients, those recovering from physical trauma or people with disabilities.

The science is now being used in hospitals and rehabilitation centres in the U.S., where “healing gardens” have been created for patients to look at and walk through.

Doctors and nurses are also using the leafy retreats to cope with daily life-and-death crises.

“For patients who find themselves restricted by a disability, even the simplest gardening experience – such as growing a potted plant from a cutting – gives them a feeling of control,” said Teresia Hazen, who oversees horticultural therapy programmes in Oregon.

“Gardening, more than most rehab activities, has the ability to be very distracting. Simply by taking people’s minds off their problems can alleviate pain and depression.”

But the science is not just restricted to hospitals. Horticultural therapists are also being employed by major cities such as Chicago to help plan parks and botanical gardens.

Their patients are invited to join in the weeding, pruning, cultivating and harvesting.

Several schools of architecture now have academics on the staff to study what kinds of gardens are most likely to relate best to people.

Even New York’s notorious Rikers Island Jail is using horticultural therapy to calm prisoners and prepare them for their release.

They take part in the prison’s Greenhouse Project, which has transformed a neglected site into a small oasis with butterfly and bird gardens, a medieval-style herb garden and a waterfall.

Dr Roger Ulrich, a leading researcher on the effects of environment on behaviour from Texas A&M University, said: “If researchers had proposed 20 years ago that gardens and gardening could improve medical outcomes they would have been met with derision and scepticism.

“We now have studies showing that psychological and environmental factors can affect psychological systems and health status.”

A number of experiments have led scientists to reach their conclusions. In one – reported in the Journal of Environment Psychology – researchers took 112 young, stressed-out adults and split them into two groups.

The first sat in a room with a view of trees and then strolled through a garden. The other sat in a windowless room and then walked in an urban environment.

The group that relaxed in the garden showed decreases in blood pressure and a positive change in feelings. Researcher Dr Terry Hartig, from the University of California in Irvine, said: “Some of the changes could be measured within minutes.”

Green Living in Adobe House – The Benefits of Living in a Green Adobe House

On a visit to Tucson in 2003, an old high school friend of mine, Daniel Snyder of Westwind Solar Electric, introduced me to the designer and builder Tom Wuelpern.  As the award winning owner of Rammed Earth Development, Wuelpern has built many an adobe house in the Tucson area.

Wuelpern lives and works in the Barrio Santa Rosa district of central Tucson and the 800 block of Meyer Avenue has been a principle focus of his creativity.  Here he’s built homes that complement the vintage adobes of that historic district.  When he first arrived there wasn’t a single house left on that stretch of Meyer Avenue so Wuelpern had to live out of a trailer while building his first home.  He says the neighborhood was “a little rough” and that occasionally he’d sit out in front of the trailer “with a gun over my knees.”

Things have changed since those early days when people said that Wuelpern was crazy to build in a “slum.”  Now the original residents share the Barrio Santa Rosa with, artists, architects, symphony musicians, and many other creative types attracted by the rustic character of the adobe house.

Adobe construction was first brought to the southwest by the early Spanish settlers who were originally introduced to it by the Moors from North Africa.

One old adobe after another crowds the Barrio’s dusty avenues, many of them painted in vibrant colors which scintillate in the desert heat.  The Barrio Santa Rosa really has the feel of a traditional Mexican town.

I, being a “creative type”, was enchanted by all of this and when Wuelpern offered me the opportunity to have some input on the adobe house that he was about to build, I had to say “yes.”

And it has been a treat to get to know the pleasures of a small Green adobe house.

The walls are 18 inches thick and the floor is poured concrete with a radiant heating system embedded in it.  I chose recycled blue jeans insulation which is as effective as fiberglass for temperature but even better for sound, and more green and ecological so that it will never present any hazard to the environment or to anyone’s health.

I get a snug feeling just thinking about my adobe abode.

The paint on the interior walls is uniquely appropriate because it is a non-toxic clay paint composed of earth pigments sourced from the desert landscape itself.  All other interior paints are Non-VOC, so they do not pollute the interior space of the house.  I am always struck by the yucky smell of toxic chemicals emanating from the paint, carpeting, and other components of newly built or remodeled conventional buildings.  It’s the first thing I notice and there is none of that in this Green Living, ecological, adobe house.

In addition to benefiting our health by not out gassing toxins the natural paint allows the thick adobe walls to breathe because it doesn’t form an impermeable skin between the interior air and the walls.  These walls can then act as a temperature and humidity reservoir for the house which stabilizes the in door climate through out the day.

Adobe is not a very efficient insulating material so an adobe house is not the best choice for regions with harsh winters but it is an excellent choice for the desert where it gets very hot during the day and can be very cold at night.  This is because adobe has a good “thermal mass,” which means that as the suns heat is absorbed by the exterior walls it gradually penetrates through the wall to warm the interior during the night.  By the next morning the cold night air has cooled the wall contributing, in turn, to cooler interior temperatures during the day. This allows me to cut back on the air conditioning and the heating.

Since adobe is essentially an inert material, the “toxic” content of the structure is hugely reduced.  This makes adobe construction, when feasible, a very attractive Green Living alternative.  Adobe construction is a reasonable way to achieve sustainable living spaces appropriate for us and the environment.

This is a very comfortable Green Living and ecological adobe house.  It is a beautiful residence which places no demand or burden upon its occupants; it feels neutral and enriches the spirit with its light and benevolent character.