Get Dirty: 3 Reasons Gardening is Good for the Brain

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Gardening is often recommended as a way to relieve stress and get some exercise—especially as you get older. We’ve talked about the many benefits of being outdoors before. How getting fresh air and sunshine raises your oxygen levels, gives you a healthy dose of vitamin D, and balances your circadian rhythm. But gardening does a lot more for your body and brain than simply enjoying the benefits of the outdoors. Here are three reasons to get dirty—in a garden.

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When you garden, you use your entire body. You’re kneeling, leaning over raised beds, moving up and down a row of plants, carrying bags of soil and fertilizer, pushing a wheelbarrow, and handling full buckets of various materials. That involves a whole lot of squatting, twisting, walking, and more, which increases your heart rate and gets your blood pumping. Even better, this physical activity doesn’t necessarily feel like exercise, so it’s like an undercover workout.

All of this movement means you’re also utilizing multiple areas of your brain. It activates your cerebellum by keeping you balanced and coordinating your movements. The frontal lobe not only helps with muscle movement, it’s busy with higher cognitive functionality doing things like planning and organizing the many tasks required to keep a garden healthy. The parietal lobe lights up with all the sensory experiences and the temporal lobe builds memory as you navigate things like soil health, water levels, seasonal changes, and stages of plant growth.

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Studies are starting to consistently show that gardening daily significantly reduces overall risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as you age. A 2006 study found that gardening reduced the risk of cognitive decline by as much as 36%. Even though we aren’t able to identify all the reasons these cognitive diseases strike, we know that keeping your gray matter flexible and healthy through the aging process is one of the most important preventative methods we have. When you garden, your brain is problem-solving, increasing your physical strength, fine-tuning your dexterity, enhancing your endurance, elevating your learning, and activating your sensory experience.

Gardening also increases the production of brain derived neurotrophic factors, or BDNF’s. This is essentially fertilizer for the brain, and helps grow new neural cells as well as maintaining the neural pathways you already have. In a recent study, researchers found that twenty minutes of gardening significantly increased levels of both BDNF and PDGF. PDGF’s, or platelet derived growth factors, play an important role in the formation of blood vessels. The two of these together work to help keep neural cells and pathways running smoothly, and to ensure that the blood vessels in the brain and throughout the body are healthy as well.

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We often hear that gardening is good for the soul. But a phrase meant to be uplifting and positive may actually have some science to back it up. A study published in 2007 discovered that a bacteria commonly found in dirt and soil, Mycobacterium vaccae, actually stimulates brain cells to produce more serotonin.

Serotonin is a key hormone necessary in stabilizing your mood and increasing your sense of happiness and well-being. It’s imperative in maintaining healthy sleep cycles, triggering hunger, and balancing digestion. Serotonin also works to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone, in the brain, as well as increase the ability to concentrate on tasks.

In addition to increasing serotonin levels, researchers have since found lipids in this same bacteria that bind to the receptors in immune cells and prevent inflammation from occurring. This is profoundly helpful not just in your physical health, but in reducing the cellular reactions to stress. The discovery of this lipid has researchers further studying how this bacteria can help fight stress levels in soldiers and first-responders, along with reducing inflammatory diseases.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

It’s likely that you haven’t played in the dirt since your childhood days, but growing research is demonstrating that getting your hands dirty has numerous health benefits. The good news is that it’s never too late to start a garden, even if starting means a small houseplant or two. If yard space is a problem, many communities have communal gardens where anyone can sign up and volunteer their time to help. No matter the shape and size of the garden, the important thing is to take off the gloves and get dirty — for better brain health, of course.



Jim Kwik is the brain trainer to top performers, executives, & celebrities. KwikBrain is designed to help busy people learn anything in a fraction of the time.

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Jim Kwik

Jim Kwik is the brain trainer to top performers, executives, & celebrities. KwikBrain is designed to help busy people learn anything in a fraction of the time.