As we age, it can become more difficult to maintain a regular exercise routine. Common problems that we encounter as we age are difficulty with balance, strength, and a decline in mobility. We know exercise is good for our health, and it can even help alleviate some those common challenges of aging. However, a decline in our balance or strength could mean we stop doing yoga or going to the gym.
Luckily, there is an outdoor exercise activity that people of all health conditions and physical abilities can do to improve their health - Gardening.
Gardening is a great form of therapy and exercise that provides benefits like stress relief, improved mood, positive self-esteem, increased strength and mobility, better heart health, improved dexterity, and it even reduces the risk of developing dementia. With some modifications to tools, and an altered garden layout, seniors gardening into their golden years is possible.
Gardening is a Form of Therapy
Gardening acts as a therapy session to relieve the stress we build up and it provides a physical release of emotions. Self-esteem can be improved from as little as one 30 minute session in a garden per week.
The mental health benefits of gardening can improve overall mood, fight depression or depression-like symptoms, fatigue, and provide more vigor. Performing a stress-relieving activity and connecting with nature allows seniors to be at peace with themselves at their current stage of life and view their lives through a more loving and positive lense.
In a 2010 study by Agnes E. Van Den Berg and Mariëtte H.G. Custers, participants performed a stressful activity before being instructed to do one of two things. Half of the participants read indoors for 30 minutes after performing the stressful activity, and the other half were instructed to garden outdoors for 30 minutes. The study found that those who were instructed to garden had a stronger decrease in stress levels and had restored a positive mood compared to the participants who read indoors.
Gardening with others in a community effort will increase positive results through social connection, but gardening solo will still prove to be a worthy therapy session to improve overall well-being.
Gardening is a Form of Exercise
Gardening uses all of our motor skills, involves moderate physical activity, which improves strength, and helps increase mobility. It is considered a workout, so warming up our muscles before and cooling down after gardening helps minimize the risk of injury and maximize the health benefits.
Some senior gardeners may struggle to bend or kneel in a garden, accommodations such as vertical gardens or raised beds should be considered. We’ll cover more about this later in this post.
Gardening not only relieves stress, but also improves strength, dexterity and heart health. Regular gardening exercise reduces heart attack risk by up to 30%.
Gardening can improve hand strength and dexterity when using tools, digging and planting. However, too much repetitive movement can also lead to injury. A helpful tip is to keep a timer for 15 to 30 minutes in the garden and take regular breaks to prevent injury or excessive fatigue.
While many of us have one dominant hand, it is also beneficial to switch back and forth between hands to complete tasks. This will ensure both hand muscles get a workout.
Gardening is a healthy form of exercise that can be modified to suit seniors with many health conditions and different abilities.
With modifications to tools and a well-planned garden layout, seniors with a range of health conditions can garden safely. Tools can be altered to suit senior gardeners’ abilities by using foam, tape and plastic tubing to make the grips of tools easier to hold. Gardening tools should also be as lightweight as possible.
Examples of tools that can be modified to make gardening easier for seniors include:
4 wheeled wagons that are easier to use than wheelbarrows due to better stabilization and easy pulling.
Long handled tools to avoid bending or stooping - these tools also use the power of leverage to make the tool more effective with less physical effort.
Kneeling stools that provide knee support and handles to assist when standing up. Most garden kneelers can also double as a stool for sitting to avoid stooping or bending over to tend to the garden.
Garden tools with an arm support cuff for seniors with arthritis.
If your garden tools are green or another colour that makes them difficult to find in the garden, paint them with easy to see colours such as red or yellow to make them brighter and easier to find after setting down. This can also act as a safety feature to keep others from stepping on garden tools that may have been misplaced.
A well-planned garden layout that considers safety and mobility limitations, such as multi-level garden beds, will ensure seniors reap all of the benefits that gardening has to offer.
What to consider in your garden layout:
Create flat walking paths through the garden to encourage seniors to interact with the plants. A flat walkway will prevent tripping hazards. Walking paths should be continuous and never lead to a dead end to avoid confusion.
Research all plants before including them in the garden to ensure they’re non-toxic and won’t cause injury.
Raised garden beds and vertical gardens help senior gardeners avoid bending - this also makes the garden bed more accessible for seniors who use a wheelchair or walker.
Build shade or set up umbrellas to protect senior gardeners from the sun.
Shaded sitting areas could be built along the walking path to encourage socialization. Having a rest area nearby when senior gardeners need a break is also a good idea because water and snack breaks should be a regular part of gardening.
Warning! A watering hose is a potential tripping hazard. Consider using small watering cans that are not too heavy when filled. A watering system can also be installed if senior gardeners are not able to water the garden themselves.
Simple modifications can be made to garden tools and layouts to make gardening an accessible activity for all seniors. Always keep sun safety, hydration, and rest periods top of mind when gardening.
Gardening Can Prevent or Alleviate Symptoms of Dementia
Research has shown that daily gardening reduces the risk of developing dementia by 36%. Although there is not one clear benefit from gardening that reduces the risk of developing dementia, all of the mental and physical health benefits will prevent or alleviate symptoms of dementia.
Gardening encourages us to get out doors to enjoy nature, and perform physical activity. Getting a healthy dose of sun, nature, and physical activity leads to a better sleep pattern, which is another health benefit that can prevent or alleviate symptoms of dementia.
Gardening is a safe and easy activity for seniors, even for seniors with Dementia. Keep in mind that seniors with dementia may become agitated or disoriented if the garden has a dead end, and they should not be given any sharp tools that could injure them or others around them.
If you or your senior loved one live somewhere that cannot accomodate a garden, consider container gardening because this form of gardening still offers many of the health benefits as traditional gardening.
Overall, gardening has many health benefits for people of all ages, and it is a great form of therapy and exercise for seniors. A few simple modifications for tools and pre-planning a safe garden layout means seniors can garden into their golden years.
Common safety practices to follow for gardening include going out in the early morning or later in the day to avoid the midday heat, wearing lightweight clothing, hats and gloves, drinking water to stay hydrated, and regularly seeking shade.
Gardening Promotes Neuroendocrine and Affective Restoration from Stress: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1359105310365577
Easi Grip Garden Tools with Arm Support Cuff: http://www.disabilityworkconsulting.com/easi-griptm-garden-tools-set-of-4/
Easi-Grip Add-on Handles: http://catalogue.gboomer.co.uk/product/easi-grip-add-on-handles-pack-of-2/
The Many Advantages of Long-Handled Tools: https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/choose-long-handled-garden-tools-for-easier-garden-care
Example of a Garden Kneeler and Seat: https://www.amazon.ca/Trademark-Innovations-GRDN-KNEELER-Garden-Kneeler/dp/B011SQNN3A/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&qid=1527778090&sr=8-9&keywords=kneeler+garden
Example of Garden Wagon: https://www.walmart.ca/en/ip/ozark-trail-easy-folding-wagon/6000197494158?rrid=richrelevance
What Is The Evidence to Support the Use of Therapeutic Gardens for the Elderly? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3372556/
Gardening as good as exercise in cutting heart attack risk, study shows: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/oct/28/gardening-exercise-cutting-heart-attack-risk-diy-60-plus
Lifestyle factors and risk of dementia: Dubbo Study of the elderly. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16411871