Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.

UCare generously supports MinnPost’s Second Opinion coverage; learn why.

Gardening linked to improved body image and enhanced well-being

Antidote to cabin fever: A new form of “victory gardens” — the small vegetable and fruit gardens planted by millions of Americans during World War I and II — appear to be making a comeback this spring.

community garden
MinnPost file photo by Ibrahim Hirsi
Planting a victory garden may help transform how you feel about yourself.
A new form of “victory gardens” — the small vegetable and fruit gardens planted in backyards, parks, schoolyards and even on rooftops by millions of Americans during both World War I and II — appear to be making a comeback this spring, thanks to our current “war” against the coronavirus pandemic.

The reason for this gardening renaissance is understandable, as the Hennepin County Master Gardeners point out on their website.

“As we face a new national challenge in COVID-19, some food and home items are getting difficult to find,” writes Dr. Steven Miles, a master gardener volunteer and professor emeritus of medicine and bioethics at the University of Minnesota. “Many people have lost income. Gyms are closed, and we are getting less exercise. Cabin fever has set in.”

“A victory garden is an answer to all of these,” he adds.

Article continues after advertisement

But those may not be the only benefits. Planting a victory garden may help transform how you feel about yourself. For according to a small but intriguing study from Great Britain, the activity of growing our own fruits and veggies can promote a more positive body image.

And that’s a good thing. “Positive body image is beneficial because it helps to foster psychological and physical resilience, which contributes to overall wellbeing,” explains Viren Swami, the study’s author and a social psychologist at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, in a released statement.

As Swami explains in his current study, a positive body image is not merely the absence of a negative body image. It is defined instead as an “overarching love and respect for the body” and includes “an appreciation of the body and its functions, acceptance of the body despite its imperfections, and body-protective behaviours.”

How the study was done

For the study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Ecopsychology, Swami recruited 84 gardeners and 81 non-gardeners, ranging in age from 20 to 82. All lived in the same area of north London. The two groups were well matched demographically, with no significant difference between them in terms of age, gender, body mass index (BMI), occupational status or ethnicity.

Each of the study’s gardeners had an urban allotment — a small plot of land in a public space that the owner rents for a modest fee to grow food for non-commercial purposes (their own home use). In the United States, such plots are usually called community gardens.

The study’s non-gardeners did not garden on an allotment or anywhere else.

All 165 participants filled out questionnaires that have been designed by psychologists to assess people’s appreciation of their own body and its functions. Three specific body-image-related traits were measured (on five-point scales): body appreciation, functionality appreciation and body pride.

Article continues after advertisement

The non-gardeners filled out the questionnaires once, while the gardeners did it twice: before and after going to their allotment to do some gardening.

The questionnaires revealed that the gardeners had significantly higher positive body image scores — on all three measures — than the non-gardeners. They also tended to express higher levels of appreciation of their own bodies after, rather than before, their allotment sessions.

And the more time they spent working in their gardens, the greater the improvements in scores.

Limitations and implications

This study was small, and it involved people from a single city in a single country — a country where allotments are ubiquitous and have a long history. The findings, therefore, may not be applicable to other groups of gardeners, including those in the United States.

Also, there may have been differences between the gardeners and non-gardeners in the study — ones not identified (such as non-gardening-related physical activity levels) — that could explain why the gardeners had higher self-image scores.

Still, the study’s results support previous research that has linked gardening in general — and allotment gardening specifically — with improvements in both physical and psychological health.

“My previous research has shown the benefits of being in nature more generally, but increasing urbanization has meant that many people now have less access to nature,” says Swami.

“Ensuring that opportunities for gardening are available to all people is, therefore, vital and may help to reduce the long-term cost burden on health services,” he adds. “One way to achieve this, beyond policies that ensure access to nature for all citizens, would be through the provision of dedicated and sustained community allotment plots.”

Article continues after advertisement

FMI:  You’ll find an abstract of the study on Ecopsychology’s website, but the full paper is behind a paywall. For tips on how to get started with your own home victory garden, go to the Hennepin County Master Gardeners website.