James H. O’Keefe, M.D.

As the days lengthen and the sunlight starts to feel warm on the skin again, spring breathes new life into the world around us. This time of year especially I love to get outside to do some gardening; it instantly relaxes and refreshes me. I even enjoy the rainy days. I find the sounds of rain soothing—I can feel the plants flourishing as they bathe in the showers and drink up the revitalizing waters of life.

And I’m in good company. One of every three Americans actively participates in gardening, making it one of our most popular forms of exercise. Gardening is a wonderful opportunity to get intimate with nature, even if you are an urban dweller.

It’s also a purposeful way to get your 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise each week. A large Stockholm study showed that regular gardening cuts stroke and heart attack risk by up to 30 percent for those over 60.

Gardening also is a great way to be sure you get your daily dose of vitamin D. Expose your arms and/legs for about 10 minutes. This will ensure you get enough vitamin D to reduce the risks of heart disease, osteoporosis, and various cancers. In fact, you may be doubling your risk of dying of heart disease and other causes if you don’t get enough vitamin D. Make it a goal to work in the garden for 30 minutes a day. If you need to break your gardening workouts into two 15-minute sessions, that’s fine. It’s the total exposure that’s key.

A recent meta-analysis on gardening and health published in Preventive Medicine Reports suggested that digging in the dirt also is beneficial to the mind, body and soul—not just the soil. Studies show that gardening improves one’s life satisfaction, vigor, and sense of well-being.

I saw a sign in a neighbor’s garden recently that read: “Feel free to talk to the plants; they understand.” In fact, the mental health benefits of gardening are so potent that scientists refer to it as “horticultural therapy.” What’s more, gardening is cheaper than therapy, and you get vegetables and flowers to show for your work. And whoever said money can’t buy happiness has clearly never been to a garden center nursery in spring.

Tending to plants in the dirt has also been shown to improve your sleep quality. In part, this is due to the outdoor exercise, which leaves you pleasantly bushed. Additionally, working in a garden melts stress away and reduces anxiety, all of which makes it easier to doze off and sleep more soundly.

A study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease estimated that lifelong avid gardening could cut the risk of Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50 percent. Gardening is also helpful for preventing diabetes and obesity. Of course, eating the nutritious homegrown plants is therapeutic for your heart and brain, but the vegetables and fruits you grow yourself will improve your health and well-being, even if they never make it to your kitchen table.

Dr. O’Keefe is a cardiologist with Saint Luke’s Cardiovascular Consultants, located in Lee’s Summit at 20 N.E. Saint Luke’s Blvd., Suite 110, 816-931-1883. Also read Dr. O’Keefe’s newsletter, From the Heart, online visit: http://www.saintlukeshealthsystem.org/saint-lukes-cardiovascular-consultants-newsletter.