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Having your own garden — and spending time in it — improves health and well-being, study suggests

People with access to a private outdoor space reported better general health, increased psychological well-being and higher levels of physical activity.

flower garden
After analyzing the data, researchers found that people with access to a private outdoor space reported better general health, increased psychological well-being and higher levels of physical activity.
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

If you’re fortunate enough to have your own yard or garden area, you may want to start spending more time in it.

New research from the United Kingdom has found that having access to — and using — a personal patch of greenery is associated with better physical and psychological well-being.

In fact, the increased health benefits from spending time gardening are similar to those seen among people who live in wealthy neighborhoods when compared with those who live in poor ones, the study reports.

Plenty of previous research has suggested that living near urban parks or other public green spaces is associated with improved health. As I’ve noted here before, those potential benefits include a reduced risk of type II diabetes, heart disease and premature death. People living nearer to nature also tend to sleep longer and to have lower levels of stress.

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Few studies, however, have investigated whether having access to a “domestic” garden (defined as “the area adjacent to a domestic dwelling, which itself is either privately owned or rented”) offers similar health advantages. The authors of the current study — a team from the University of Exeter and the Royal Horticultural Society — decided to fill that research gap.

“The extent and connectivity of natural spaces in urban areas are under increasing pressure as a result of population growth, housing demand and increasing land values,” the study’s authors write. “It is therefore important to understand the benefits and dis-benefits of gardens for human health and wellbeing, particularly the implications of garden access for reducing health inequalities and how they might affect the use of other urban natural environments.”

The study was published this week in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning.

Study details

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from almost 8,000 people who were surveyed between 2009 and 2016 by trained volunteers for Natural England, an organization that advises the British government on protecting the natural environment. The participants were asked about whether they had access to a domestic garden and, if so, whether (and how often) they used it for gardening and/or relaxing. They were also asked how often within the previous 12 months they had engaged in an outdoor leisure activity, away from their home.

In addition, the survey had the participants assess their general health, their level of physical activity and their overall satisfaction with life.

After analyzing all that data, the researchers found that people with access to a private outdoor space reported better general health, increased psychological well-being and higher levels of physical activity.

Interestingly, they were also more likely to be frequent visitors to parks and natural areas away from their home.

It didn’t matter whether they were spending their time in the garden digging around in the dirt or just relaxing on a lawn chair, individuals who had their own green space tended to express a greater sense of wellbeing than those didn’t — although those who actually gardened had the highest levels. Not surprisingly, people who did their own planting and weeding were also more likely to meet the U.K.’s physical activity guidelines than those who used the outdoor space primarily for relaxing.

Those findings held even after adjusting for a variety of factors that affect health and wellbeing, such as age, gender, marital status, home ownership, dog ownership and socioeconomic status.

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Indeed, when the researchers compared the health advantages associated with having a garden versus not having a garden with those associated with living in a high-income area versus living in a low-income one, they found the advantages to be similar.

Limitations and implications

The study is observational, so it can’t prove a causal relationship between the access to and use of private gardens and improved health outcomes. Also, the study involved only adults living in England. The findings may not be applicable to people living elsewhere, including here in the United States.

Still, the findings are provocative, for they suggest that private as well as public green spaces should be considered when communities are designing new housing.

“These findings have important implications for the planning and development of urban areas, providing evidence there may be a need for private green and outdoor spaces alongside publically accessible green spaces,” the study’s authors write. “They also establish the benefits of gardens to public health, further clarifying their role in helping individuals to meet physical activity guidelines and promote wellbeing.”

“Gardens are a crucial way for people to access and experience the natural environment,” emphasizes Dr. Rebecca Lovell, the study’s senior author and a research fellow at the University of Exeter, in a statement released with the study. “Our new evidence highlights that gardens may have a role as a public health resource and that we need to ensure that their benefit is available equally.”

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the study on the website for Landscape and Urban Planning, although the full paper is behind a paywall.