The present research tested the hypothesis that gardening can promote restoration from stress. To this end, allotment gardeners were first exposed to a stressful task and then randomly assigned to conditions of gardening on their own allotment or reading in their own allotment home.
In line with expectations, gardening promoted stronger psychophysiological recovery from stress than indoor reading. After 30 minutes of gardening, levels of salivary cortisol and self-reported positive mood had fully returned to baseline. A comparable amount of indoor reading also led to some reduction of cortisol levels, but this reduction was weaker and not accompanied by an increase in a positive mood.
Unexpectedly, negative mood was insensitive to the experimental manipulations, possibly because the negative mood items of our assessment were too extreme for participants to regard them as applicable to themselves. Overall, the present results provide the first experimental evidence for the effectiveness of gardening as a means of relieving acute stress.
The present findings are compatible with correlational research on the health benefits of exercise, which indicates that regular engagement in gardening as a moderate type of exercise is related to reduced reactivity to stress and a lower likelihood of depression and stress-related disease (Teychenne et al., 2008; Weyerer & Kupfer, 1994). In the exercise literature, there has been some debate on the effectiveness of single bouts of moderate exercise in reducing acute stress.
Whereas some studies have reported decreased levels of psychological and physiological stress after a single bout of moderate exercise, others have reported increased levels or no changes (Salmon, 2001; Thompson et al., 2001). The present study informs this debate by showing that a brief period of gardening, as a specific form of nature-based moderate exercise, can provide psycho- physiological restoration from acute stress. The present findings also fit well with a larger body of research showing that contact with nature is related to lower mortality and morbidity from stress-related diseases and stronger recovery from acute and chronic stress (Maas et al., 2009; Mitchell & Popham, 2008; Van den Berg et al., 2007).
Research on the restorative effects of nature has thus far focused mostly on visual and incidental forms of contact with nature, such as viewing pictures of nature or walking through a park. The present study adds to this literature by showing that gardening, as a more involved and goal-directed way of interacting with nature, can have similar stress-relieving effects. This is important because engaging in goal-directed activities can stimulate people to regularly make contact with nature and to spend prolonged periods of time in a natural environment (Francis & Hester, 1992). Gardening may thus permit people to enjoy the restorative effects of nature on a regular basis.
The present study pioneers an experimental approach to the stress-relieving effects of gardening. As such, the present research is not without limitations. Due to constraints in time and resources, we were able to include only one control condition. We selected indoor reading of magazines as a control condition that would give an indication of the effectiveness of gardening in its full dimensionality against a commonly practiced alternative relaxation activity.
However, because indoor reading is both passive and non-natural, the relative contribution of the natural environment and physical activity components of gardening could not be determined. In addition, indoor reading might have been somewhat aversive to gardeners in the present study, by keeping them from gardening in their own allotment plot.
We recommend follow-up studies to compare the effects of gardening against more specific control activities that allow more insight into the mechanisms underlying these effects, such as moderate exercise in a quiet urban environment, or passive contemplation of nature. To further examine the role of exercise in the stress-relieving effects of gardening, future studies could also incorporate heart rate monitors and accelerometers.
By conducting a field experiment among allotment gardeners, the present study found a feasible and externally valid way to investigate the restorative effects of tending one’s own garden. However, by the same arrangement, it is possible that we mostly included people who were particularly sensitive to the psycho-physiological benefits of gardening. Moreover, the present study focused on allotment gardeners, a group with specific interests and characteristics.
These warrants caution in generalizing findings to other samples. An important task for future research will be to replicate the results of the current study with different groups of gardeners and non-gardeners. In so doing, future research should preferably include larger samples that allow for the identification of characteristics such as gender, age, physical condition, skill, or interests that may moderate the restorative effects of gardening. Eventually, longitudinal studies will be needed to examine how the psycho-physiological effects of gardening unfold over time.
Such longitudinal studies could adopt paradigms from exercise research to investigate reactivity to stressful tasks before and after prolonged engagement in gardening programs, specifically in populations that are currently not engaging in this activity (e.g. Storch, Gaab, Kuttel, Stussi, & Fend, 2007). In doing so, longitudinal studies may provide important additional information on the potential stress-buffering effects of gardening, which are suggested by recent epidemiological research (Van den Berg, Maas, Verheij, & Groenewegen, 2010).
Longitudinal studies also allow for examining the impacts of gardening on cognitive measures of attention and executive functioning that may become apparent only after more prolonged periods of time (Hartig et al., 2003). By including cognitive measures along with psychological and physiological measures, future research may shed more light on the relative importance of ‘attention restoration’ and ‘psycho-physiological stress recovery’ as the two main processes that have been theoretically implicated in the restorative effects of nature (Hartig, 2007).
By providing the first evidence from controlled research for the restorative effects of gardening, the present study highlights the relevance of gardening as a valuable resource to disease prevention and health promotion. These insights have many potential implications for individuals, governments, and healthcare organizations. For example, stressed garden owners may consider tending their own garden instead of hiring gardeners to do the work.
Source: Van Den Berg, A. E., & Custers, M. H. (2011). Gardening promotes neuroendocrine and affective restoration from stress. Journal of health psychology, 16(1), 3-11.
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