We all know that spending time outdoors has lots of benefits for both our physical and mental health.

Gardening is one simple and easy way for everyone to enjoy regular contact with nature. Even for those without access to their own garden, community plots and allotments offer a great way for people in urban areas to get growing. Demand for allotments is increasing and in some locations waiting times have reached as much as 40 years.

As well as helping to get the heart pumping there is a mounting body of evidence that gardening can also help to improve our mental state. There is even some research that suggests gardening might play a role in helping people to cope with serious health problems such as cancer.

Getting physical

Any type of garden, whether large or small, provides an opportunity for physical activity. Gardening is regarded by health experts as moderate intensity exercise equivalent to playing doubles tennis or walking at a speed of 3.5mph, and so carries similar fitness benefits. A recent study found a correlation between gardening and a lower body mass index. It also found a greater percentage of non-gardeners were classified as overweight.

Gardening is also linked to better diets. Home and allotment gardens have long been important for domestic food production, but gardening can also encourage people to eat more healthily and act as an educational resource on nutritious food. In fact, children who take part in gardening and grow their own food have a greater preference for, and increased consumption of, fruit and vegetables.

Mood enhancer

Anyone who’s ever done any gardening knows it’s great exercise but perhaps less well known is the positive impact gardening can have on your mental health. Research has shown that gardeners generally have greater life satisfaction, enhanced self-esteem and fewer feelings of depression and fatigue than non-gardeners.

But more than this, the act of gardening can specifically improve people’s moods. A recent survey asked gardeners about their mood before and after a session on their allotment, participants reported improved self-esteem and reduced feelings of tension, depression and anger.

Other research suggests that gardening can increase life satisfaction, and both reduce and promote recovery from stress. In fact, gardening leads to greater reductions in stress following a stress test than either reading indoors or an indoor exercise class.

Gardening can often involve social interaction and becoming part of a community. Gardeners often share their knowledge, skills and experiences with each other and by doing so develop relationships and support networks. People with strong social networks have an increased life expectancy, greater resilience to stressful life events and fewer visits to the doctor.

Gardening also provides essential opportunities for contact with nature, which alone has numerous benefits for our mental health. Spending time outdoors in a natural environment helps us to feel less stressed, reduces the symptoms of depression, and enhances our concentration and attention by allowing us to recover from mental fatigue.

To find out more about how to get into gardening check out the Royal Horticultural Society’s excellent website for a host of how-to guides and hints n’ tips for gardeners of every level of experience.

This article was written Carly Wood, Lecturer in Nutrition and Exercise Science, University of Westminster. It is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.