Gardening and Bone Health Part 1: The Benefits

Bone-Healthy Living / April 19, 2019

This time of year, you can almost hear the land breathe a deep sigh of relief. When the ground thaws, the sun rises with gusto, and the birds resume their song, it can only mean one thing… spring has arrived!  

If you’re a gardener, it’s the time of year you look forward to most. Time to slip on your gloves, don your sun hat, and take to the dirt.

There’s tremendous satisfaction that comes from planting a garden. After all, the seeds you sow today will grow into beautiful plants tomorrow. But flowers and vegetables aren’t the only benefits you’ll reap from a little time spent in the garden.

There’s a growing pool of research that supports the theory that gardening is good for your health. In fact, a recent meta-analysis reported significant positive effects of gardening on health.

And as we’ll see in a moment, the health benefits of gardening run deep… right down to your bones!

In this first part of our gardening and bone health mini-series, we’ll be focusing on the many benefits of the practice. In particular, we’ll address how gardening can contribute to greater bone health.

So, if you weren’t thinking about getting out in the garden this year, here are some benefits I hope will make you reconsider.

Bone Health Benefits of Gardening

There’s something undeniably soothing about gardening. The fresh air, the sunshine, the feeling of connecting with the earth, the deep sleep after a day of physical work… the experience is wholesome and reinvigorating. What’s more, it’s an excellent way to get in some exercise!

And here’s why you can feel good about gardening for your bones too:


Can Help Increase Your Bone Mineral Density

A promising study from the University of Arkansas linked regular gardening to the prevention of osteoporosis. This study found that women aged 50 and older who gardened at least once a week had better bone density than women who did other exercises like jogging, swimming, walking, or aerobics!   

It’s worth noting that this appears to have been an observational study. In other words, the researchers didn’t conduct an active intervention. The concern with these types of studies is that they don’t account for other factors like reduced exposure to toxins, better diet, and various lifestyle choices that may go along with gardening. It may be one or more of these variables which produce the actual effect.

Though we can’t rely too heavily on the results of an observational study, we can take them as a good sign! We can also draw our own conclusions based on the similarity between gardening and weight-bearing exercises.

Now, the benefits of weight-bearing exercise for osteoporosis are well-established. Remember, weight-bearing exercise is an activity where you’re working against the force of gravity. This form of exercise puts pressure on your bones and muscles which helps them become stronger.

And as it turns out, many common movements in gardening mimic weight-bearing exercises!

For example, think about carrying bags of compost, shoveling, digging up weeds, or pushing a wheelbarrow. All these movements involve working against gravity in some way.

The moral of the story? Gardening is a full-body workout with all the bone-building benefits that entails!


Soak Up Plenty of Bone-Building Vitamin D

Another great part about gardening is that it’s an outdoor activity. When you’re out digging in the dirt, you’re also under the sun. Direct exposure to sunlight boosts vitamin D production which every single part of your body needs.   

In particular, vitamin D is good for your bones. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc—all of which are essential minerals for strong bones. As a matter of fact, without adequate vitamin D, you can only absorb 10-15% of the calcium you consume!

Yet, almost 50% of people around the world don’t get enough vitamin D. Why? Well, the main source of vitamin D is exposure to natural sunlight. So for the majority of people, vitamin D deficiency is caused by inadequate exposure to sunlight.

Which brings us to the point at hand: gardening is an excellent activity for getting a healthy dose of bone-building vitamin D.



Contributes to Overall Mental Health

There’s an old Chinese proverb that goes, “One who plants a garden plants happiness.” And recent research suggests there’s some truth to this saying!   

In the meta-analysis I mentioned earlier, researchers looked at 22 case studies to determine the effects of gardening on human health. They concluded that, “Overall, the results suggest participating in gardening activities has a significant positive impact on health. Indeed, the positive association with gardening was observed for a wide range of health outcomes, such as reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms, stress, mood disturbance, and BMI, as well as increases in quality of life, sense of community, physical activity levels, and cognitive function.”

This study provides powerful evidence that gardening is good for mental health (in addition to a host of other benefits!). The reason gardening supports mental health could have something to do with stress.

It’s innately calming to be outdoors, under the sun, with a task to keep your hands busy and your worries at bay. You can see how your stress might recede when spending time in the garden. And there’s research to support this theory.

In a study investigating the effect of nature on stress reduction, researchers measured the concentration of cortisol (that’s your stress hormone) in the hair of 85 gardeners. They looked at what happened when subjects engaged in physical activity, no activity, socialization, and time in nature. Both time spent in nature and physical activity—two main characteristics of gardening—resulted in decreases in cortisol!

This outcome is of note because stress can contribute to bone loss. A recent review of evidence explains that chronic stress, “induces a decrease of bone mass and deterioration of bone quality by influencing the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) axis, sympathetic nervous system, and other endocrine, immune factors.” In layman’s terms, this means that stress causes physiological changes that interfere with bone formation.

So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed out, why not try a little gardening? Your bones and your state of mind will be the better for it!


Grow Your Own Pesticide-Free Fruits and Vegetables!

You probably know conventionally grown produce can be full of harmful pesticides. But you may not know that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) found evidence of 225 pesticides and pesticide breakdown products on standard fruits and vegetables! I didn’t know 225 pesticides existed!

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed this data and determined that nearly 70% of produce is contaminated by pesticide residue. This is a major concern because pesticides are extremely toxic. What do you think keeps the pests away? Poison!

What’s worse, it’s common practice to use different pesticides together. This is an issue because the toxic effects of pesticides are synergistic. In other words, they’re even more damaging to human health when combined.

The link between pesticides and osteoporosis is inflammation. Inflammation causes bone loss by over-activating the cells that break down bone. And pesticides cause inflammation!

You can understand the appeal of planting your own pesticide-free fruits and vegetables. Not only will you spare yourself the nagging worry that your produce is unclean, you’ll also enjoy the satisfaction of growing your own food.

To help you get started, here are some recommendations for easy produce to grow from seed in your garden:

12 Vegetables & Fruits to Grow in Your Garden

Source: The Old Farmer’s Almanac

ProduceGuidelines for When to Plant*
BeansAnytime after the last spring frost.
BeetsFor an early crop, plant in March/April. For a late crop, plant anytime from June to September.
CarrotsSpring or autumn.
CucumbersNo earlier than two weeks after the last frost.
GarlicMid-autumn recommended, but can also be planted after the last frost in spring.
KaleEarly spring to early summer.
LettuceAfter the last spring frost.
PeasFour to six weeks before your last spring frost date.  
PumpkinsAs soon as ALL danger of frost has passed (pumpkins are very sensitive to cold).
RadishesFor a spring planting, four to six weeks before the last frost. For an autumn planting, four to six weeks before the first frost.
SquashOne week after the last spring frost to midsummer.
TomatoesIf you’re growing your tomatoes from seed, start indoors six to eight weeks before the last spring frost. If you’re using transplants, plant after the last spring frost when the soil has warmed.

✩ Note that kale is a calcium-rich superstar! Every 100 grams of kale contains 254 mg of calcium. If you’re going to plant one vegetable to start, make it this nutrient powerhouse.

* This guide makes recommendations for when to plant seeds outdoors. Timing may vary depending on your geographic location. For detailed planting instructions, click on your vegetable of choice!

Quick Tips for Growing Your Own Vegetables

  1. The first step to growing your own vegetables is picking the right location! Choose a spot that gets plenty of sunshine, has good soil, and is protected from the elements.
  2. Make sure you space your crops properly. If your plants are too close together, they’ll compete for nutrition, sunshine, and water.
  3. Don’t stinge on your seeds. Spend a little extra in the spring to get the current year’s seeds. Fresh, high-quality seeds will grow better and yield a more bountiful harvest!
  4. Follow watering and planting guidelines closely to give your plants the best chance to thrive.

12 Herbs to Grow in Your Garden

Source: The Farmer’s Almanac

HerbsGuidelines for When to Plant*
Basil After all danger of frost has passed and soil is warm. Basil enjoys heat!
ChivesEarly spring, as soon as the soil is workable.
Coriander & CilantroIn the spring after the last frost, or in the autumn. Coriander and cilantro actually grow best in cooler weather.
DillEarly summer. Dill is self-sowing, so if the soil isn’t disturbed during the growing season, more dill plants will pop up next season!
LavenderIn the spring, as the soil warms up.
MintIn the spring, when the soil is warm.
OreganoAnytime after the last spring frost.
ParsleyThree to four weeks before the last spring frost. Parsley is a slow starter!
RosemaryIn the spring, after the last frost when the soil is warm.
SageUp to two weeks before the last frost date.
TarragonThis is one of the rare herbs that you can’t grow from seed! You can grow tarragon from a transplant. Plant transplants in the spring or autumn.
ThymeTwo to three weeks before the last spring frost.

* Note that you can grow herbs indoors any time of year. This guide makes recommendations for when to plant seeds outdoors. Timing may vary depending on your geographic location. For detailed planting instructions, click on your herb of choice!

Quick Tips for Growing Your Own Herbs

  1. Herbs don’t like super wet roots! Make sure your herbs get proper drainage.
  2. Over-fertilized herbs aren’t as flavorful. Go easy on the plant food.
  3. Herbs like to soak up at least six hours of sun a day.
  4. Herbs enjoy regular haircuts. Trim them often to encourage fresh growth!

Home-Grown Recipe Idea

Finally, I just had to share this delicious, home-grown recipe idea! You can make this recipe in five minutes with the produce you grow in your own backyard. Plus, it’s packed full of bone-healthy calcium, vitamin C, and antioxidants. And I mean, who doesn’t LOVE bruschetta?


Home-Grown Tomato Basil Bruschetta

Course Appetizer
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 5 minutes
Total Time 5 minutes
Servings 20
Calories 8 kcal

Instructions

  1. Dice tomatoes, mince garlic, and loosely chop basil. 
  2. Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix well.
  3. Serve at room temperature with seed-based crackers or baked pita wedges!

Recipe Notes

*Note that bruschetta should be served at room temperature. If you’d like to make it ahead of time, just remember to remove bruschetta from the fridge to allow it to come to room temperature before serving. For best results, serve within 24 hours.

Ingredients

  • 1 lb tomatoes or 8 x 2oz plum tomatoes
  • 1.5 tsp garlic
  • 1.5 tbsp basil
  • 2 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1.5 tsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
Nutrition Facts
Home-Grown Tomato Basil Bruschetta
Amount Per Serving
Calories 8
% Daily Value*
Sodium 1mg0%
Potassium 55mg2%
Carbohydrates 1g0%
Vitamin A 200IU4%
Vitamin C 3.1mg4%
Calcium 2mg0%
Iron 0.1mg1%
* Percent Daily Values are based on a 2000 calorie diet.


Gardening and Bone Health Benefits Takeaways

Spring is a season of renewal, and as we’ve seen, gardening can have a renewing effect on your health as well.

There’s a wealth of research that supports the health benefits of gardening. From reducing depression and anxiety to increasing satisfaction and quality of life, a little time in the garden can go a long way. As for your bones, gardening can:

  1. Contribute to increasing bone mineral density through weight-bearing exercise.
  2. Ensure you get plenty of bone-building vitamin D through exposure to sunshine.
  3. Promote overall mental health and reduce stress that can cause bone loss.
  4. Provide a source of pesticide-free produce to ward off bone-damaging inflammation.

So, why not sow the seeds of greater health this season by spending some time in your garden!

If you’re concerned about gardening with osteoporosis, look out for part two of this mini-series where we’ll focus on how to modify gardening to make it safe even if you have low bone density.

Do you have a green thumb? I’d love to hear your gardening tips! What are your favorite plants to grow? Please share with me in the comments below!

Author: Dean Neuls, AlgaeCal CEO and Co-Founder

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