How Gardening Grows Healthier, Happier Families

In our over-worked and over-stimulated world, there's probably no better way to bring health, happiness and meaning to your life than gardening. We know instinctively that the garden is a good place to be--like the saying goes, no one ever heard of an "office cubicle of Eden" or a "factory of Eden."

For many, the garden is a sanctuary, and garden time is private time to be jealously guarded. But the evidence is growing that the benefits of gardening—especially food gardening—are simply too good not to share. Whether you are living with children, grandchildren, or parents, everyone can benefit from time together in the garden.

Gardening is good exercise.

Did you know that 30-45 minutes in the garden can burn as many calories as a round of circuit training? It's better-quality exercise, too, because unlike exercise machines which focus on one muscle group, gardening strengthens many muscle groups at once. Gardening improves flexibility, stamina and balance too. And because the exercise happens naturally while your mind is occupied, you don't suffer the tedium that makes treadmills and stair climbers so hard to stick with. In fact, gardening is one of the few activities that relaxes your mind while exercising your body.

Gardening leads to good nutrition.

A diet high in fruits and vegetables has been shown to fight obesity, prevent diabetes and reduce the risk of cancer. But how can you get the family to eat healthfully when sugary packaged foods are advertised on every television channel and stocked on every grocery shelf? By growing the good stuff yourself!

Kids love to watch plants germinate from seed, grow to maturity and bear fruit—and that interest is likely to translate to the dinner table. Many a young gardener will eat peas right off the vine, but leave store-bought ones to languish on the plate. They may be suspicious of tomatoes—until they taste their first homemade pizza sauce. Kids will even try funny-looking vegetables such as turnips, if they're homegrown. To make the lesson stick, involve kids in preparing garden produce: "Can you help me cut up some of those peppers we grew in the garden?" You'll be encouraging good nutritional habits that will last a lifetime.

Eating right is a challenge for adults, too. Seniors need more vitamins, protein, calcium and fiber, and their slower metabolisms demand a lower-calorie diet. Yet they often resort to "convenience foods" that are just the opposite: high in calories and sodium, low in other nutrients. And working parents are often the worst eaters in the family, wolfing down sodas, sweets and salty snacks on the go. For all adults, having a garden to snack from can literally be a lifesaver.

Gardening reduces pesticide exposure.

Agricultural pesticides pose a serious risk to human health. For over twenty years, study after study has linked pesticides to myeloma and other cancers. More recent studies at the Mayo Clinic link pesticide exposure to Parkinson's disease, male infertility and a host of other illnesses. Some people claim that most pesticides are not harmful. What this really means is that they aren't known to be harmful—because they've never been tested! In fact, store-bought produce contains more pesticides than ever, because so much is imported from countries with lax environmental regulations. Take pesticides out of your diet by growing a chemical-free family garden (and always wash your store-bought fruit and vegetables).

Gardening improves childhood development.

For several years, pediatricians have been concerned about children growing up indoors, with little direct experience of nature. This "nature deficit disorder" is more than just a buzzword. Evidence is growing that children suffer measurable developmental deficits when cut off from nature, including anxiety, ADHD, delayed executive function (organizational skills), problem solving ability and empathy for others. Happily the reverse is also true: time spent outdoors improves cognitive and emotional function. "Green time" may have therapeutic value, too—according to one researcher, outdoor activities such as gardening are nearly as effective in treating ADHD as medication.

But can gardening make your family happy? Yes!

Did you know that gardening is used as a form of therapy in senior centers, hospitals and even prisons, because it is so good at combating depression? Schools which have established gardens to teach plant science or nutrition have found an unexpected benefit: students who garden are less tired, bored and irritable than students who are stuck inside all day. We bet the same is true for bored office workers.

For families, gardening is a way to stay connected, to exchange news of the day while sharing meaningful work. Families also share the sense of accomplishment that comes with a thriving garden. Who can resist the thrill of the year's first juicy tomato, home-grown salad or a weighty crop of potatoes?

In a world increasingly dominated by "screen time," when everyone is plugged in but no one is connected, wouldn't it be nice to spend more time together doing something that makes you healthier, smarter and happier? That's gardening! So switch off the TV, put down the game controller, and take your family out to the garden for the best 30 minutes of the day.

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